The state Senate on Monday, Dec. 6, 2021 at the Roundhouse in Santa Fe. (Photo by Austin Fisher / Source NM)
The New Mexico Senate endorsed 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.
In a bipartisan 32-8 vote, senators passed Senate Bill 64, known as the Second Chance bill, which would no longer allow judges to sentence people to life without the possibility of parole for crimes they committed as children.
The legislation provides eligibility for parole after someone serves 15 years in prison for a crime they committed when they were under the age of 18 in most circumstances.
Sen. Ron Griggs (R-Alamogordo) opposed the bill in 2022 but was one of the six Republican senators who voted for it on Wednesday.
“Any of us standin’ here today, we’re all probably lucky that when we were kids, we didn’t do somethin’ that put us in a bad spot,” Griggs said.
As of Wednesday, there were 75 New Mexicans held in state prisons for crimes they committed while they were juveniles who could be impacted by the bill if it became law.
The bill creates a “tiered” sentencing review system which advocates say creates developmentally meaningful timing for parole eligibility, while balancing a commitment to punishment and accountability in the most severe of cases.
“It’s not an automatic get-out-of-jail-free card,” said Sen. Bill O’Neill (D-Albuquerque), a co-sponsor. “Every circumstance is different.”
Sen. Cliff Pirtle (R-Roswell) amended the bill to clarify that it will not change the existing practice of the New Mexico Parole Board.
The board could still deny parole to anyone who hasn’t learned, improved or changed, said Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino (D-Albuquerque).
The legislation still needs to go through the committee process and a vote in the House of Representatives, where it is being carried by Reps. Janelle Anyanonu (D-Albuquerque), Gail Chasey (D-Albuquerque), and Kristina Ortez (D-Taos).
If the House passes it, it would then go to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s desk.
People can and do change
Ortiz y Pino said children should be treated differently than adults, and no matter how brutal a crime might have been, it should be judged differently if a child is convicted of committing it.
“There’s a lot of difference between kids and adults,” he said, “and we need to be willing to discern that difference, and to make decisions based on that discernment.”
People do change, he said, and one cannot definitely predict something about someone into the future.
“When you lock somebody up in a prison, we’re paying a lot of money for nothing — we get nothing from them,” Ortiz y Pino said. “If they were out, if they were able to sustain employment, if they were able to start their family, if they were able to become productive members of the society, we all would benefit.”
Sen. Antonio Maestas (D-Albuquerque) said prison guards have privately told him it is in their interests for the bill to pass.
It is horribly unsafe to have someone in prison without any hope of getting out, he said, but if someone has a “flicker of hope” to possibly get out in 20 years, that would curb unsafe behavior.
“It will increase safety within the walls, it’ll increase safety for our correctional officers, because it will incentivize good behavior for those folks who have zero incentive to behave,” he said.
Griggs said he hopes the Parole Board takes its duty more seriously and gives people hope when it evaluates them for release.
“This is still difficult for all of us, because we know a circumstance or an individual that could benefit, or at least have the opportunity for hope, that may not have that today,” Griggs said.
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