Sponsors pull second-chance bill

Opponents ‘attempting to amend this bill beyond recognition,’ lawmakers say

By: - February 14, 2022 5:30 am

The Roundhouse in Santa Fe, December 2021. (Photo by Austin Fisher / Source NM)

People convicted of crimes they committed before they were 18 will wait at least another full year to find out whether they’ll have any shot at a life on the outside in the next several decades.

Senate Bill 43 would have decreased how long someone convicted as a juvenile would have to be in prison before a parole board could consider their case. The goal was to put the state in line with what’s recommended by legal experts, the Supreme Court and developmental researchers, echoing what’s been done in several other states, the sponsors said. It stands at 30 years, and lawmakers were looking to halve that.

But after a long fight, the bill’s sponsors are pulling SB 43, Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez (D-Albuquerque), and Reps. Gail Chasey (D-Albuquerque) and Dayan Hochman-Vigil (D-Albuquerque) announced Sunday.

“This is a decision we do not take lightly, but is one we are forced to make to preserve the values on which this important legislation is based,” the lawmakers wrote. 

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham arranged talks behind the scenes to hammer out what spokesperson Nora Meyers Sackett called a “workable compromise,” amending the parole eligibility out to two decades.

But the bill’s initial 15-year timeline was already rewritten a year ago, yielding somewhat to its opponents.

“In the final week of the session, it has been frustrating to watch as a chorus of voices was drowned out by a handful of district attorneys and other parties who have misrepresented this issue to victims of tragedy across our state,” the sponsors wrote. “While we have negotiated in good faith, these parties have continued to move the goalposts, attempting to amend this bill beyond recognition.”

Which stakeholders?

Meyers Sackett refused to answer specific questions from Source New Mexico about the governor’s involvement in the negotiations around the bill or who was in the room — real or virtual — for the negotiations.

“It is critical to look at any issue holistically, and the Governor’s Office is frequently in conversation with a great many relevant stakeholders affected by legislation related to public safety, including families of crime victims, legislators of both parties, criminal justice advocates, public safety experts, and district attorneys,” Meyers Sackett said. “The Governor’s Office supports identifying measures that take into account stakeholder concerns from across the spectrum …”

Jessica Brown, a founding member of the New Mexico Coalition for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, has worked on the issue for years, so she knows the victim’s rights advocates who support the measure, she said.

None of those people were in the room, she said, when the governor was arranging negotiations.

“None of those victims were invited to that meeting, nor were any of those victims even given the opportunity to join that meeting,” Brown said, “because nobody knew it happened.” 

She feels like the governor’s position on the bill changed within the last week, she said. “Before that, we hadn’t heard anything about the governor opposing any part of our bill,” Brown said.

When the governor wrote to the Senate on Jan. 24 to approve the bill for consideration, Brown said “we were informed that this was an issue she wanted addressed, and she was committed to signing the bill.”

That all changed on Feb. 10 when Rep. Randall Pettigrew (R-Lovington) introduced an amendment to the bill that he said was the result of “an agreement” between the governor, Senate Republicans and the New Mexico District Attorney Association.

That amendment would have removed any possibility for meaningful release, according to Preston Shipp, senior policy counsel for the Campaign for the Sentencing of Youth, which seeks to eliminate life without the possibility of parole and other extreme sentences for young people.

Shipp, who worked for five years as a prosecutor for the Tennessee Attorney General’s Office, said the amendment would have effectively exempted consecutive sentences from the parole eligibility timeline, which would have gutted the meaning of the bill, and created an incentive for a punitive prosecutor to circumvent what the bill was designed to do.

In response to multiple written requests for comment from Source New Mexico when the bill was still in play, Meyers Sackett refused to answer any questions about the governor’s position on the bill. She refused to say whether Lujan Grisham supported the entire amendment as it was introduced by Pettigrew, whether she asked him to carry it, or whether she saw and approved it before it was sent to him.

Left to speculate

In a written statement on Sunday before the announcement of the bill being removed from consideration, Meyers Sackett said the governor supports addressing criminal justice reform through a number of avenues, including strengthening penalties for violent crimes and keeping repeat violent offenders off New Mexico streets, “as well as providing a robust system for rehabilitation and reintegration when appropriate and applicable.”

Meyers Sackett also did not answer questions about whether the governor was requiring certain elements be included in the bill in order to sign it.

This is Shipp’s third year being involved in the advocacy around this issue in New Mexico. He worked closely with the sponsors to help them draft the bill based on what’s worked in other places.

While he cannot speak for the sponsors, Shipp said he sees a lack of transparency in the process, with only “rumblings that it is not satisfactory” coming from the Governor’s Office.

“Yes, the bill’s sponsors want to know what exactly the governor is looking for in this bill, so that they can weigh: Is that a compromise that they think is workable?” Shipp said. “And it doesn’t seem like they have been able to get concrete answers to those questions, either.”

Without any information about the governor’s position on the bill, the sponsors and advocates are left to speculate about the reasons why she first put the bill on the call and then later asked for changes to it.

“I think that it changed because her tough-on-crime agenda is not getting as far as she would like it to in this legislative session,” Brown said. “And I feel like she needed to sacrifice something to make that stance that she is trying to be tough-on-crime. And, you know, we just happened to be that bill that she sacrificed.”

The bill will be introduced again in the 2023 legislative session, the sponsors wrote, and they are confident it will pass, because they were joined this year by members of the judiciary, faith communities and leaders, the pediatric medical community, and other organizations.

Before then, Brown hopes that the governor will see how much support the bill has.

“In the coming year, we’re only going to continue to build more support for this bill from more people and more organizations,” Brown said. “I hope that they see that it’s not right to lock up children and throw them away for the rest of their life, regardless of the crime they were convicted of. At some point, we have to do better as a state, and we really need a government that sees that and is truly passionate about making that change happen.”

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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.