February 5, 2018

Juvenile sentencing proposal faces uphill climb in Legislature

At age 15, Nehemiah Griego used rifles to kill his parents and three siblings in the family’s Albuquerque home.

Griego’s rampage, which took the lives of his 9-year-old brother and sisters aged 5 and 2, shocked the conscience of New Mexico, said state Sen. Greg Baca.

A judge decided that Griego would be prosecuted as a juvenile who was capable of being rehabilitated. Griego was committed to the custody of the state Children, Youth and Families Department. He is scheduled to be released next month when he turns 21.

Baca, R-Belen, said Monday that Griego’s case helped inspire him to introduce a long-shot bill that would change the juvenile justice system.

Baca’s proposal, Senate Bill 243, would eliminate automatic release at age 21 for those sentenced for serious offenses as juveniles.

Instead, Baca said, if attempts at rehabilitation failed, a judge would have the option of sending someone initially sentenced as a juvenile to an adult prison.

As the system stands, he said, a juvenile offender can commit to bettering himself through treatment programs or decide not to take advantage of that chance. Either way, the offender knows he will go free at 21, Baca said.

His bill, he said, would motivate juvenile offenders to learn from what they did wrong.

“I believe this option will create more successful outcomes for juvenile offenders and more reassurance for the public,” Baca said.

His proposal will face opposition, notably from Sen. Bill O’Neill, formerly executive director of the Juvenile Parole Board.

“As one who has worked closely with such individuals, it needs to be acknowledged that juveniles are juveniles,” O’Neill, D-Albuquerque, said Monday after Baca had outlined his proposal.

O’Neill called Baca’s bill “a return to the dark ages” that would undercut decades of fact-based experience on how best to treat juvenile offenders.

“New Mexico has an excellent Children’s Code,” O’Neill said. “Those processes need to be respected because they are deliberative decisions by judges and professionals in the Children, Youth and Families Department.”

The New Mexico SAFE coalition, made up of 31 organization, including the American Civil Liberties Union, gave the bill a D grade.

“Children are a special case, and we need to treat them differently,” said Steven Allen, of the ACLU of New Mexico.

Baca’s proposal is a mirror of House Bill 190, sponsored by Rep. Monica Youngblood, R-Albuquerque, who often carries crime legislation favored by Gov. Susana Martinez.

Neither Baca’s nor Youngblood’s bills has much of a chance to become law.

Only 10 days remain in the legislative session, and Baca’s proposal would have to clear three legislative committees just to get to a vote of the full 42-member Senate. Then it would have to survive a similar process in the House of Representatives.

Youngblood’s bill is to be heard first by the House Consumer and Public Affairs Committee, which traditionally is skeptical of rushing through significant changes to the criminal code.

Contact Milan Simonich at msimonich@sfnewmexican.com or 505-986-3080. Follow his Ringside Seat column in Monday’s and Friday’s editions.