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Advocacy groups, mental health experts urge governor to call off special session

The Santa Fe New Mexican - 7/9/2024

Jul. 9—A coalition of advocacy organizations and behavioral health providers is calling on Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to pull the plug on a special session scheduled to start in less than two weeks.

The coalition, which includes progressive-leaning groups that support the governor on many issues, wrote a letter Tuesday urging her to "halt" the special session and "engage further with community experts" on her proposals to tackle mental health and other public safety-related issues in New Mexico ahead of the regular 60-day session next year.

"With less than two weeks to go before session is slated to begin and an obvious lack of consensus between lawmakers on the (continually shifting) legislative proposals, there is simply no way to achieve the solutions New Mexicans deserve," the letter states. "Moreover, a special session that will conclude in a matter of days with little to no opportunities for community feedback is not conducive to passing true and lasting safety solutions."

The broad-based coalition includes the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, the Center for Civic Policy, Common Cause New Mexico, Equality New Mexico and the New Mexico Conference of Churches.

The governor's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The coalition's letter lists what it calls three top-line concerns, starting with legislation that expands the definition of "harm to self" and "harm to others" which would make it easier for the state to "force someone into a locked mental health facility."

"This legislation ... does nothing to tackle the underlying issue of critical shortages in voluntary care," the letter states. "Coercive treatment also threatens people's constitutional rights, transgresses basic principles of ethical care, causes trauma, and is likely to entrench distrust in New Mexico's systems of care."

The coalition is also raising concerns with a competency bill that would expand the universe of people subject to involuntary civil commitment. The proposal "would require detention of certain people who are not competent but also not dangerous and require prosecutors and judges to initiate civil commitment proceedings in a variety of circumstances," according to the ACLU.

"Legislation that mandates detention and the initiation of involuntary commitment proceedings for certain individuals with mental illness in the criminal courts strips prosecutors and judges of their ability to make discretionary, case-by-case assessments regarding an individual's freedom," the letter states. "This approach undermines the careful consideration of people's unique situations, potentially leading to unjust outcomes and causing further harm to the people you aim to help."

The coalition is also opposed to a roadway safety bill that would make it unlawful to loiter on the median of a highway with a posted speed limit of 30 mph or more and with a flat area less than 36 inches wide.

"Legislation that will saddle unhoused people with unpayable fines and jail time does nothing to meaningfully address pedestrian safety or solve our dearth of affordable housing and wrap-around services," the letter says. "At the same time, criminal records and debt will make it even more impossible for unhoused people to attain employment and housing."

The letter says the coalition's request for the governor to call off the special session was made with "respect and sincerity."

"We acknowledge that the call for a special session has ignited a much-needed conversation about mental health and public safety that has generated rich and creative ideas for addressing the complex conditions underlying the crises our communities now face," the letter states. "We are grateful to you for accelerating this critical dialogue, but real solutions deserve more time than we have. They also deserve more robust dialogue and partnership with community organizations like ours, which have been working diligently for years to lift us out of the crisis created by previous administrations."

This is a developing story and will be updated.

Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.

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