Calling NM 'lawless,' Ronchetti unveils public safety priorities

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Jun. 23—Standing with crime victims and other supporters, Republican Mark Ronchetti vowed Wednesday to push for legislation that would stiffen criminal penalties and make it easier to hold defendants in jail as they await trial — key pillars, he said, of how he'd tackle New Mexico's high crime rate as governor.

He also promised to appoint judges who would be tough on crime and to launch a statewide publicity campaign to build legislative support for his initiatives, many of which have been rejected repeatedly by the Democratic majorities in the Legislature.

"Crime has been ignored for too long by elites in Santa Fe," Ronchetti said, "and now we live in a lawless state, where anything goes and everybody knows that, especially the criminals."

The campaign for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, by contrast, said Wednesday that she is proud to run on her record of having boosted pay for police officers and securing legislative support to enhance penalties for certain gun crimes, among other measures.

The governor "believes every New Mexican has a right to feel safe in their neighborhood — that's why she brought Republicans and Democrats together to toughen penalties for violent crimes and give New Mexico law enforcement the support that they need," campaign spokeswoman Kendall Witmer said.

The back-and-forth comes after Ronchetti this month won a five-way race for the GOP nomination, setting up a general election race against Lujan Grisham, a Democrat seeking her second term.

Libertarian Karen Bedonie is also running.

Some of the initiatives announced by Ronchetti on Wednesday broadly match ideas proposed by Lujan Grisham. She asked lawmakers earlier this year, for example, to adopt legislation intended to make it easier to hold people charged — but not yet convicted — of certain crimes behind bars until trial.

But opponents of the measure, including some of the most influential Democrats in the Senate, blocked the proposal, contending it would violate the Constitution and do little to reduce crime.

Ronchetti said he would succeed where Lujan Grisham couldn't.

As governor, he said, he would campaign throughout the state to build support for the measure and make it clear to voters which legislators stand in the way of ending the state's "catch and release" system.

Public safety is expected to be a key issue in this year's gubernatorial campaign.

New Mexico has struggled with persistently high violent crime rates — which have remained at least 19% above the national average since 1992 and twice the national average in recent years, according to a January memo issued by analysts for the Legislative Finance Committee.

In Albuquerque, homicides jumped to a record-breaking 117 last year.

Analysts for the LFC, the budget and accountability arm of the Legislature, say their research shows the certainty of being caught is a more effective deterrent to crime than the severity of the punishment.

New Mexico, the analysts said, had fewer officers per capita than the national average at the beginning of last year and would need to hire more than 400 officers to reach the national rate.

Law enforcement agencies in New Mexico have tried for years to bolster their ranks.

This year's state budget calls for pay raises averaging 16% for State Police officers and creates a fund to provide retention bonuses every five years.

Lawmakers also passed — with bipartisan support — a package of crime legislation this year that enhances some criminal penalties and aims to make it easier to solve some crimes.

It requires the judiciary, for example, to share ankle monitor data for pretrial defendants with law enforcement if needed for an investigation.

Ronchetti wasn't impressed.

"I'll take a little step over no step," he said of the package, "but this is a joke."

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Ronchetti also cast doubt on the effectiveness of pay raises to boost the ranks of law enforcement. He said the passage of a state Civil Rights Act last year — barring qualified immunity as a defense to claims filed under the act — damaged the morale of police officers.

"If you talk to the cops," he said, "what they'll tell you is they don't need more money, they don't need more equipment. They need to know that their governor and their leaders back them up."

The Lujan Grisham campaign described Ronchetti as "an out-of-touch, inexperienced TV weatherman" without a track record of delivering on public safety.

"The governor delivered 16% raises for state police and $100 million in funding for hiring and training additional police officers," Witmer said.

Ronchetti announced his public safety priorities Wednesday afternoon in Albuquerque. The crowd included a police officer wounded in a shootout last year near a Dutch Bros Coffee shop.