Young and incarcerated: Part 3

Corrections data show a high rate of girls serving life sentences in New Mexico

By: - November 12, 2021 6:00 am

The rate of people being sentenced to life when they were under 18 is more than three times higher for women than it is for men in New Mexico, according to state prison data.  (Photo by Getty Images)

Data from the New Mexico prison system suggest a disproportionate number of incarcerated women are serving life sentences who were under the age of 18 when they committed their offenses.

Young and incarcerated: Part 1

Overall, very few women are serving life sentences in New Mexico. Of the 446 people serving life sentences in the state, only 15 of them are women. 

That’s according to Corrections Department data obtained by Denali Wilson, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union in New Mexico and a founding member of the N.M. Coalition for the Fair Sentencing of Youth.

Still, Wilson found that a disproportionate number of women serving life sentences were not yet legally adults at the time of their offenses. The rate of people being sentenced to life when they were under 18 is more than three times higher for women than it is for men in New Mexico.  

Three of the 15 women serving life sentences were not legally adults at the time of their offense, accounting for 20% of all women serving life.

By contrast, 24 of the 430 men serving life sentences were not legally adults at the time of their offense, or about 5.6%.

“In all of the cases of women serving life sentences for crimes committed when they were children, the girls’ male romantic partner was involved,” Wilson said. “In most cases, it was undisputed that — between them — the romantic partner was principally culpable.”

Two of the three cases happened before the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Miller v. Alabama in 2011, Wilson said.

In that case, the justices decided that judges everywhere have to consider what role the young person played in the crime, and also weigh scientific evidence that people under 18 are more swayed by their peers and don’t fully understand consequences. A little later, in another case, the justices ruled that courts can go back and reconsider cases that happened before they made that call. 

The three women in New Mexico are serving life sentences with the possibility of parole. A defendant in this state has to do the whole 30 years, day-for-day, before becoming eligible for parole on a life sentence. They do not get credit for good behavior that would shave years off before they can ask for parole.

But the U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions in Miller and similar cases only deal with life sentences with no possibility of parole for someone who is under 18. 

“Of course, all of these sentences definitely still violate the spirit of Miller and its progeny — that children, even those who commit serious violence, are capable of change and redemption,” Wilson said.

Marsha Levick, chief legal officer with the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center, said the apparent gender disparity in New Mexico is unusual, because when looking just at women under 18 who have been convicted of homicide across the country, they probably are not being sentenced more harshly than men.

There are more than 6,600 women in the U.S. serving life sentences, according to the Sentencing Project, with 20% being under the age of 25 at the time of the crime. In comparison, 48% of men who reportedly commit homicide are under age 25 at the time of their offense.

Age 18 is just the legal marker. Science on adolescent development commonly identifies 25 as the age when a brain is fully developed, the Sentencing Project researchers wrote. “Before this point, individuals are less able to regulate their behaviors and foresee consequences from their actions,” they write. Though the U.S. Supreme Court rulings only differentiated young people under 18 in terms of culpability for violent crime, “emerging science suggests a more accurate age for this cutoff should be 25.”

Supreme Court punts to Legislature

In the New Mexico Supreme Court’s ruling in the case of Joel Ira, the judges upheld a 91-and-half-year sentence for someone who was a teenager at the time of the crime, but invited the legislature to create a statutory fix modernizing the state’s juvenile sentencing practices. They noted that New Mexico is behind many other states.

“The New Mexico Legislature is at liberty to enact legislation providing juveniles sentenced to lengthy terms-of-years sentences with a shorter period of time to become eligible for parole eligibility hearing,” the court wrote. “Although we consider Ira’s opportunity to obtain release when he is 62-years-old constitutionally meaningful, albeit the outer limit, we do not intend to discourage the Legislature from adopting a shorter time period as have many other jurisdictions.”

Assistant Federal Defender Stephen Taylor, who has represented more than a dozen serious youthful offenders in the last 15 years, said there needs to be some kind of mechanism that allows for youth to come up for review after serving something like 15 years, rather than making them do the full 30.

He said even for those who aren’t serving life sentences, some of the sentences that get up to 20 years should be eligible for parole earlier. He has seen how young people are rehabilitated before they turn 25, but still have to serve five 10 more years before they have a chance to come up for parole.

“It’s unfortunate, and we have the power and, I think, the willpower to change it. It’s just that the policymakers have to step up and do something about it,” he said. “Unfortunately, it seems like the trend with our Court of Appeals and our Supreme Court has been to defer, defer, defer to the Legislature without taking serious action to correct some of these wrongs that we see repeated at the trial level by judges.”

Young and incarcerated: Part 4

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Austin Fisher
Austin Fisher

Austin Fisher is a journalist based in Santa Fe. He has worked for newspapers in New Mexico and his home state of Kansas, including the Topeka Capital-Journal, the Garden City Telegram, the Rio Grande SUN and the Santa Fe Reporter. Since starting a full-time career in reporting in 2015, he’s aimed to use journalism to lift up voices that typically go unheard in public debates around economic inequality, policing and environmental racism.