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Lawmakers question need for governor's mental health bill ahead of special session

The Santa Fe New Mexican - 6/6/2024

Jun. 6—Less than six weeks before the New Mexico Legislature is set to convene for a special session in July, some lawmakers expressed skepticism about a key measure in Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's package of public safety-related proposals.

During a Thursday meeting of the interim Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee, legislators posed questions and criticisms to the governor's staff on the most ambitious bill: an overhaul of state law around "assisted outpatient treatment," or court-ordered treatment for mental illness or addiction.

The proposed bill would expand eligibility for assisted outpatient treatment and lengthen the list of people who could legally petition a court for a proceeding to potentially compel someone to undergo treatment. It would add first responders such as police, firefighters and outreach workers as well as public guardians.

State Sen. Katy Duhigg, D-Albuquerque, noted a study has shown enforcement of treatment can lead to worse outcomes for substance abuse disorder.

"I don't feel like I have been presented with great data that shows this is something that solves this problem," Duhigg said, "and that is data I would want to see before passing legislation."

The Governor's Office unveiled several draft bills for legislators to consider during the special session next month.

Along with the bill addressing mental health outpatient treatment, the measures would do the following:

* Increase penalties for felons caught in possession of firearms.

* Require crime statistics reporting from state and local law enforcement agencies.

* Prohibit pedestrians from standing on some roadways and medians.

The outpatient treatment bill would require such a program — now only in place in Doña Ana County — in all 33 New Mexico counties by July 2026, with some pilot programs starting in July 2025, the governor's chief general counsel, Holly Agajanian, told the committee.

Some of the committee members questioned what made the issue so urgent it had to be addressed in a special session, considering such programs already are allowed under state law — and given that pilot programs wouldn't begin until next year.

"Even though jurisdictions are allowed to implement this, they aren't doing it," Agajanian said. "This is something that is going to take so long to implement it; we need to start now."

Duhigg questioned whether changes to the law were necessary to begin such pilot programs around the state, and she wasn't convinced counties that haven't yet enacted such programs — perhaps due to a lack of available providers — would quickly comply with the changes.

State Rep. Micaela Lara Cadena, D-Las Cruces, said it was "hard to not feel like we're following some political whims here."

Legislators haven't had any discussions about what is lacking in the existing laws on assisted outpatient treatment that would call for the proposed changes, she said, or conversations about why Las Cruces has the state's only program.

"That model is working mostly on a voluntary basis because community collaborators came together to get people access to the care they needed," Cadena said. "It's not the judge in a robe making an order that's making that program work, but the collaborative element of the community coming together."

Agajanian said the committee would discuss the three other bills, as well as a measure that would amend criminal competency law, at meetings June 26-27.

One draft bill would require all of the state's law enforcement agencies to report monthly "crime statistics and ballistic information." It calls on the state Department of Public Safety to draft standards and procedures for the monthly reports and to determine whether any other "crime incident information" should be included.

Another bill would make the charge of being a felon in possession of a firearm a second-degree felony, up from its current status of third-degree felony.

A draft bill that appears to target panhandling would make it a crime for pedestrians to stand in medians less than 3 feet wide on roadways where the speed limit is 30 mph or more.

The bill, which would make standing or walking on medians or roadway lanes a petty misdemeanor, is similar to a controversial measure the Santa Fe City Council is considering, which has faced pushback from advocates for members of the homeless community. The council is expected to vote on the local measure this month.

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