March 17, 2019

Prosecutors oppose parole changes

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New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas and all fourteen of the state’s district attorneys are asking Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to veto a bill that would change laws governing probation and parole for criminal offenders.

The prosecutors said in a letter Friday to the governor that the measure approved by the Legislature would jeopardize public safety. Supporters of the bill said that isn’t accurate.

The letter is, at best, disingenuous, said House Judiciary Chairwoman Gail Chasey, D-Albuquerque, one of the bill’s four sponsors.

“We are looking at a new day here and a lot of what is claimed in that letter, the exact opposite is true,” Chasey said Friday. “It’s really disappointing that the attorney general, our chief law enforcement officer, has signed it.”

Balderas responded in a email through his spokesperson: “We should all be concerned that there be justice and fairness for victims and their families, especially when dealing with the rehabilitation of the most violent and dangerous criminals in New Mexico.”

The bill is aimed at reducing the number and costs of people on probation and parole — about 17,000– and state prison inmates — about 7,000. It would change the laws that govern what violations send offenders back to jail or prison and who is eligible to be released on parole.

It would direct courts to more carefully assess the needs of people placed on probation and automatically reward people who are successful on probation by converting some of their remaining time to unsupervised probation.

“What we are trying to do in a nutshell is lock up people who are dangerous, and punish people who annoy us and break the laws, but are not violent, in other ways,” Chasey said. “We are spending so much money on probation violations right now and we want to stop doing that.”

A recent Legislative Finance Committee study found reincarcerating prisoners who violate the terms of their parole — most by using drugs — costs New Mexico taxpayers $40 million per year. The study found no evidence the practice improves public safety or addresses the root causes of crime.

House Bill 564 would also make changes to the state Parole Board, which has been criticized in recent years for denying parole to nearly all applicants. The measure would require the board to grant parole to geriatric, permanently incapacitated or terminally ill inmates unless it finds “by clear and convincing evidence that the inmates release is incompatible with the welfare of society.”

But the state’s top prosecutors said in their letter to the governor that she should reject the legislation because it would put the public at risk by curtailing the government’s power over criminals.

John P. Sugg, district attorney for Lincoln and Otero Counties, composed the letter on behalf of the association of state prosecutors.

He wrote that prosecutors are concerned about provisions of the bill that would prevent probation officers from arresting probationers on technical violations. The probationers instead would be subpoenaed to appear in court.

Sugg said the association also is concerned about a provision under which supervised probation could be automatically converted to unsupervised. He said that hampers the ability of judges to decide what is best for each offender.

The district attorneys also oppose a section of the bill that would make inmates sentenced to life in prison eligible for parole after serving 30 years and grant them a hearing every two years if they are denied parole.

Sugg wrote in his letter that the bill would make it more likely the state’s most dangerous criminals would walk the streets again.

Bill co-sponsor Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, criticized the association for not becoming involved in the process sooner.

“It’s disappointing that the [district attorneys] chose to resort to fear mongering after the fact instead of participating in the legislative process during the session,” Maestas said in an email Friday.

“HB 564 does not change the law in any way regarding the power and authority of the Parole Board,” Maestas wrote. “The only change is the Parole Board must now make written findings in its decision.

“Our recidivism rate in New Mexico is horrible and makes us less safe,” he said. “We must take bold steps to reduce recidivism and keep communities safer.”

Maestas said 22 other states have taken similar action. The legislation, he said, would give more discretion to probation officers and judges to enforce restitution and hold offenders accountable.

Lujan Grisham spokesman Tripp Stelnicki said Friday he couldn’t say where the governor stands on the issue.