Today, Governor Susana Martinez announced a major legislative proposal that will change New Mexico's Criminal Code to help better protect New Mexico children from child abuse and predators. Her bi-partisan bill beefs up prison time for child abusers, increases penalties for drunk drivers who kill kids, and defines new crimes where certain behavior toward children is predatory.
Governor Martinez wants to increase penalties for first-time and repeat child abusers, allowing for additional prison time in child abuse cases that do not result in great bodily harm or the death of the child. The Governor's proposed legislation will increase jail time for first-time child abusers from three years to nine years. Repeat offenders would face up to 18 years in jail, instead of only nine years.
Her legislation will also extend the Baby Brianna law by providing life in prison for someone who kills any child up to 18 years old. Current law only applies to children up to 12 years old. It also enhances penalties for somebody who drives drunk, resulting in death or injury to a child. Finally, the bill defines new crimes in cases where predators are "grooming" children, or exposing themselves in a private setting.
The bill has been introduced by Representative Al Park (D-Albuquerque) and will be carried by Senator Gay Kernan (R-Hobbs) in the Senate.
"Children should not have to live in fear of their own parents and caregivers," said Governor Martinez, a former prosecutor. "People need to know that if you hurt a child, you will serve serious jail time. We will not tolerate anyone who intentionally hurts the most vulnerable among us."
"We all know the cases that make the headlines or lead the news," says Sen. Gay Kernan. "Our penalty enhancements are for those cases before they make the news. New Mexicans are sickened by those who abuse their own kids. It's not ok to hurt a child, and now we're beefing up the punishment for those who do."
"We're also protecting more kids by classifying certain sickening behaviors as crimes," says Rep. Al Park, who is a new father. "We've heard from law enforcement specializing in exploitation of children, and they want these laws beefed up. We're doing that now, by making it easier to charge a predator for grooming behavior or for indecent exposure in a home or a car. As a new dad, I understand how parents feel when our kids are vulnerable."
"Our professional caseworkers deal everyday with some of the most heartbreaking stories our society has to offer," says CYFD Cabinet Secretary Yolanda Deines. "They come face-to-face with kids and families devastated by somebody who hurt a child. The time is right to increase penalties for people who hurt kids. We appreciate Governor Martinez's support of the work this Department does, and value her experience prosecuting dozens of CYFD cases over the years."
Martinez's proposal also defines new crimes in the cases where a child is "groomed" by a predator, and when somebody exposes themselves to a child in a private setting. Currently, neither are crimes.
"Grooming" refers to actions deliberately undertaken with the aim of befriending and establishing an emotional connection with a child, in preparation for sexual contact or exploitation. The law changes will make this contact with a minor a fourth degree felony. Currently, this is not a crime, but Governor Martinez wants to give law enforcement and prosecutors the ability to charge child predators who are clearly preparing to sexually exploit a child.
"Improvements regarding our crimes against children laws have long been needed in the state of New Mexico. These kinds of cases are trying and difficult and it's disheartening to see offenders who are convicted get away with a slap on the wrist," says Farmington Police Department Detective Heather Chavez, who specializes in child sex abuse and exploitation cases. "I applaud Governor Martinez's efforts, and her commitment to this cause."
Chavez is an 11-year-veteran of Farmington Police Department who serves on the New Mexico Internet Crimes against Children Task Force and the FBI Cybercrime Task Force. She has investigated crimes against children for the last four years of her career.