Rep. Christine Chandler smiles during a warm welcome she received Monday evening at Voices of Los Alamos. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com
Rep. Christine Chandler chats with constituents following her presentation Monday evening at Voices of Los Alamos. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com
BY MAIRE O’NEILL
Rep. Christine Chandler told Voices of Los Alamos Monday evening that she came back from the Legislative session feeling invigorated and grateful to represent the district in the Roundhouse.
Monday’s event at the Unitarian Church of Los Alamos was one of several in District 43 where Chandler took the opportunity to update constituents on the 2019 legislative session. She noted the positive energy, teamwork and collaboration during the session which she said was really heartwarming some days.
“You really bonded with your colleagues on the floor as you were trying to work through issues which was a wonderful thing,” Chandler said, adding that constructive legislation in most cases had been passed for education, business, high education, health care, public safety, criminal justice reform, energy, environment, workers legislation, ethics, elections and gender issues.
Discussing criminal justice reform legislation, she said a lot of groundwork had been laid by the prior legislators during the last three or four years.
“There were subcommittees and working groups who have been waiting with bated breath to be able to pass a bill that they knew would get signed. This was the opportune moment because we had a governor who accepted the premises behind what we’re trying to do. It’s not a punishment and jail mentality that’s necessary in some limited cases but it’s much more driven by diversion, rehabilitation, reform types of programs,” Chandler said.
She noted that the “ban the box” law was passed so that on an initial application, job applicants are not immediately quizzed on their criminal record but could be asked about it only once they get past the application process.
“The goal of course is getting people employed, not labeling them too much, so that we can start turning our society around. Having people unemployed just adds to the crime problem,” Chandler said.
She said eligibility for pre-prosecution diversion programs has been expanded.
“It gives discretion to the prosecutors and police. We might need to work on that – I’m not sure all of them use these programs as much as we’d like them to, but we’ve expanded the criteria so that more people are eligible for diversion,” she said.
Chandler said funding was behavioral health programs at county jails. She said solitary confinement was a very contentious issue as reformed but to her way of thinking not enough. The original bill had limits on how often and how long anyone could be in solitary confinement, she said, but there were strong objections to such a broad law so it was pared down to limit it to where people 18 and younger, pregnant women and people with mental illness can’t be put into solitary confinement without certain things happening.
“That was a tough problem. The people who work in prisons are legitimately afraid. It’s a dangerous place for them to work and they have bought into the idea that you need to lock them up, 23 hours a day, that’s what solitary confinement is. What we need to do is to put the right amount of resources into the prisons so it’s safer for guards to do their jobs, get the right amount of staffing and get the right facilities,” she said. “At this point quite frankly we don’t have the right amount of staffing, we have old facilities and a lot of work needs to be done in that area. We made some progress. Legislating is an incremental thing so we’re just going to have to keep working at it.”
Chandler also mentioned the expungement bill which under certain conditions allows a person with a criminal record who has a clean record for a period of time without engaging in certain conduct, to have the ability to petition to have their records expunged. She said that’s another measure that will help people get employed and get a fresh start.
Chandler noted the passage of the increase in minimum wage to $12 by 2023.
“Some of us wanted to be more ambitious with it but again it was all part of the whole compromise. Some of us wanted an indexing mechanism so we won’t have to keep revisiting the minimum wage but we couldn’t get that through the Senate,” she said.
The second worker protection legislation she referred to was a law that precludes local governments from passing right to work ordinances.
“My struggle with that is I believe in local government. The way I was convinced is that it is already illegal under federal law. By incorporating it in state law, it gives our attorney general the ability to enforce it as opposed to putting the burden on the workers who are involved,” Chandler said.
She said the newly established ethics commission is going to be interesting.
“We have a very complicated, organizational, jurisdictional thing. I think it’s going to need some work and frankly I have some concerns but we needed to move forward on it – just in terms of how it’s structured. Does the commission have exclusive jurisdiction? How do they share jurisdiction with other agencies? My concerns were that we need it, we have to have it, but it’s not fair if someone is fighting in three forums. Most of these people are elected officials. It should be the ethics commission or the secretary of state’s office. It shouldn’t be the ethics commission and the secretary of state’s office. It’s very burdensome and you risk having conflicting outcomes,” Chandler said.
She said there are a lot of issues with the commission but when legislators starting working with it they’ll have a better sense of how it works.
“They’re going to be hiring a general counsel and executive director and those folks are going to look at the law and they’re going to come back and say it would work better for us and you if these things happen. So my suspicion is we’ll be massaging that law for a couple of sessions,” Chandler said.
She mentioned the passage of a bill that facilitates felons in voting.
“It was not as ambitious as some people wanted it but better than it is now. When someone is released from prison, they are immediately eligible to vote and they can go register to vote. They don’t have to complete their conditions of parole or probation. Right now, they can’t vote until all those conditions are met which could be two or three years,” Chandler said.
She also mentioned that there were some progressive gender-related bills passed including one on sex designation on vital records giving people who wish to change their sex designation on vital records a much easier route to do so.
“Under current law, you need a doctor’s certificate to say you’ve gone through the medical procedures and we changed that so that all you need is an affidavit saying what your sex is and you can change it,” she said. She said the legislature also allowed for an “X designation” to allow for people who are not self-identified as either male or female.
Chandler engaged in a long and lively question and answer period on issues such as education and bills that did not pass during the session.