Second Chance bill has better chances to pass than in previous years

Santa Fe DA backs legislation and prosecutors’ group to stay neutral following negotiations, further compromise

By: - January 30, 2023 5:00 am

Sens. Bill O’Neill and Bill Tallman meet with Second Chance advocates during an informal panel on Jan. 24, 2023. O’Neil is one of the sponsors of Senate bill 64. (Photo by Austin Fisher / Source NM)

A proposal to end life without parole as a sentencing option for children and decrease how long someone convicted as a juvenile would have to be in prison before a parole board could consider their case has significantly better chances to pass than in prior legislative sessions.

Senate Bill 64 would end life without parole as a sentencing option for children and, in most circumstances, provide eligibility for parole after someone serves 15 years in prison for a crime they committed when they were under the age of 18.

In last year’s session, a different version of the bill was criticized by local prosecutors and some victims of violent crimes who raised concerns that the people who harmed them would be prematurely released.

The opposition was so strong that the sponsors pulled the bill from consideration four days after a Republican lawmaker introduced an amendment that he said was the result of “an agreement” between Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, Senate Republicans and the state association of local prosecutors.

But this year, sponsors say the New Mexico District Attorney’s Association has agreed to remain neutral on the bill, and one individual DA says she supports it.

Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez and the bill’s other sponsors negotiated with the District Attorney’s Association to change it, she told a legislative panel on Wednesday. The negotiations happened in the fall and resulted in a compromise, said Preston Shipp, senior policy counsel for the Campaign for the Sentencing of Youth.

The Association is no longer opposing this version, said Denali Wilson, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico who has worked on the proposal for three years, at an informal panel on Tuesday.

“We worked really hard during the interim session to come up with a version of the bill that, for the first time, the association of district attorneys will not oppose,” Wilson said.

Eighth Judicial District Attorney Marcus Montoya, president of the District Attorney’s Association, did not respond to a voicemail and an email on Jan. 19, and a follow-up email on Friday, asking about the group’s position.

First Judicial District Attorney Mary Carmack-Altwies said she backs SB64.

“I support it,” she wrote in an email Friday.

A spokesperson for Second Judicial District Attorney Sam Bregman on Jan. 23 declined to comment on his position.

The Senate Health and Public Affairs Committee on Wednesday passed the bill in a 6-2 party-line vote. It still has to get through the Senate Judiciary Committee and then a full vote by the Senate, before it can get hearings in the House of Representatives.

New version has ‘tiered’ sentencing system

The 2022 version of the legislation provided parole eligibility after 15 years to all people who were under the age of 18 at the time they committed their crime.

The latest proposal extends the timing for parole eligibility in two severe and rare circumstances affecting 11 cases in the state: People convicted of willful, deliberate first-degree murder would have to wait 20 years to see a parole board, and people convicted of first-degree murder where there is more than one victim would have to wait 25 years.

Advocates say this tiered review system creates developmentally meaningful timing for parole eligibility, while balancing a commitment to punishment and accountability in the most severe of cases. The states of Arkansas and Nevada enacted similar tiered review systems in 2017, Shipp said.

However, the bill doesn’t only impact first-degree murder. It would also provide a 15-year parole eligibility to young people who were convicted for being involved in lesser crimes during which someone else kills someone because that counts as “felony murder” under state law.

There are also 64 cases in New Mexico outside of this tier system, including examples in which it’s not a homicide case and there hasn’t been life lost, or in some cases even injury, Wilson said.

For example, Wilson represented a client serving a 37-and-a-half-year adult sentence for crimes committed in furtherance of escaping from a juvenile facility.

“That’s why preserving the 15 years for as many people as we do is really important: We’re preserving 15 years for felony murder and everything else that lands people with an adult sentence for sometimes a serious offense while still being a child,” she said.

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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.