Abby Long, of Albuquerque, visited the New Mexico Legislature in Santa Fe on a weekly basis during the 2023 session to advocate for Senate Bill 64. (Photo by Austin Fisher / Source NM)
Several years ago, 15-year-old son Seven Long, of Albuquerque, was facing the possibility of spending the rest of his life in prison for very serious crimes he was involved in when he was 14.
At the time, Seven’s mother Abby Long felt like a deer in headlights, and didn’t know that was possible.
With Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s signature on March 17, New Mexico became the 27th state to abolish life without parole as a sentencing option for children.
For about a year or so, Abby didn’t know whether or not a proposal like this one would affect Seven.
Now, no child will ever face such an extreme sentence in New Mexico courts.
As Abby’s family faced that possibility, she met others in similar situations, heard their stories, and learned about Senate Bill 64 and the hope they found from the legislative proposal.
“That’s why I continue to show up,” she said. During the 2023 Legislative session, she visited the Roundhouse in Santa Fe weekly to convince lawmakers to support the bill.
The new law is not a miracle, said Carissa McGee, a formerly incarcerated woman from Albuquerque who helped convince lawmakers to vote for it by sharing her own story of redemption.
It’s not going to fix everything, and it’s not going to open the door for everyone who is eligible, but it is powerful and can provide hope, said McGee, who spent nine years inside the women’s prison in Grants for attempted murder when she was 16.
“When you give somebody hope, that’s the most priceless incentive that you can grant individuals who are behind walls,” McGee said.
The new law “gives a light to people who have hope for a light, but there was no light before,” said Eric Alexander, senior advocate with the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth and co-founder of the Incarcerated Children’s Advocacy Network. Alexander was once a child who faced an extreme sentence in prison.
The new law is also supported by a decade of U.S. Supreme Court decisions and the science of adolescent brain development, said Denali Wilson, an ACLU New Mexico attorney who worked for three years to convince lawmakers to pass the bill.
“Everybody who has ever had a child or themselves has been a child knows that children are works in progress,” Wilson said. “All children are capable of and worthy of redemption.”
Trauma and violence
Abby Long, originally from Arkansas, bounced around in foster care and ultimately ran away from home. She got stranded in Albuquerque at age 14.
“I was a bit of a troubled kid myself,” she said with a laugh.
Two years before Seven committed his crime, Abby had reached out to anyone that she thought might support her family.
She called the Albuquerque Police Department’s Gang Unit and the State Police’s Missing Persons Unit, warning them that Seven was being lured into joining a gang. She also reached out to the New Mexico Children Youth and Families Department, and the nonprofit Youth Development Incorporated.
“They all told me that until he breaks the law, there’s nothing they can do,” she said.
She believes if these entities had listened to her, serious harm “could have been prevented.”
Long said when she told lawmakers about this, a lot of them agreed with the need for prevention.
Many asked her how Seven is doing, and she shared his story as an example of a way children can be held accountable in age-appropriate ways and turn their lives around.
One lawmaker asked her how much of the violence among young people is because of trauma.
“Probably all of it,” she told them.
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Seven had a lot of trauma. Abby said she used substances from the time her son was born until he was about 5. They were unhoused. His father died of a heroin overdose when he was about 4.
When Seven was charged, his kindergarten teacher spoke on his behalf in court, Abby said.
“He was a very well loved kid in the community, so a lot of people wanted access to be able to visit him,” she said. Being inside cut him off from many supportive people in his life, Abby said.
That’s why Abby was shocked that Seven ended up where he is. The crime was out of character for him, she said, and speaks to how easily children can find themselves in scary situations they do not expect.
Fortunately, the Long family is not among those who will be impacted by the new law. A court deemed Seven amenable to treatment, and able to stay in the juvenile system instead of going to adult prison. He was sentenced to stay at the Youth Diagnostic and Development Center in Albuquerque until he is 21.
They talk over the phone every other day. The phone calls are free, unlike adult prisons. Each weekend she visits him in person, usually along with Seven’s brother or grandmother.
“We are allotted two hugs,” Abby said, one at the beginning and one at the end of each visit.
The guards stop you when you hug your child for more than a few seconds, she said.
They just started letting families take in quarters to use a faulty vending machine in the visiting area, Abby said.
With a hope that she can maybe get her son a drink, “I’ll spend five dollars in quarters,” Abby said.
When Seven went in, he was very impulsive, Abby said. Now 19, he has matured in a huge way, she said. He helps children first entering the prison. He’s more of a steward of the world and not just the children there with him, she said.
“He really genuinely wants to take care of things,” she said.
He has graduated high school, and is working on his college degree in social work.
She knows he has a lot of remorse, and has talked about his willingness to engage in restorative justice practices, but understands and respects the victim’s family’s unwillingness to do that.
When children cause harm in our community, it is important to hold them accountable in age-appropriate ways that leave room for their vast potential for growth and positive transformation, Wilson said.
“We simply can’t know the person that someone will be looking at when they’re 15-, 16-years-old, and it is unfair and wasteful to fail to acknowledge that a person has become the person they have, that they have transformed,” Wilson said.
Children who go through these situations like Seven are told they can’t talk about their case, Abby said.
“I think kids have gotten so conditioned to not talk about these things, or to be very cautious of what they share and who they share it with, they really don’t have any opportunities to actually heal,” she said.
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