February 17, 2020

House OKs probation, parole changes

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Joe Gratz

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The House late Saturday night approved legislation by a wide margin meant to decrease the number of people on parole or probation going back to prison on technical violations for issues like missing a drug test or an appointment with a parole officer.

In a 47-17 vote, with some Democrats voting against the measure, the House approved a new version of a bill sponsored by Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque and a handful of other lawmakers. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham vetoed a similar bill last year after it cleared both the House and Senate.

The revised version, Maestas argues, has a much better shot at being signed by the governor. In her veto message, the governor had asked bill sponsors to meet with prosecutors and work on a compromise.

This year, Maestas said district attorneys, lawyers from the Attorney General’s Office and the Governor’s Office all worked on language in the bill and are on board with the new version, which now heads to the Senate for debate.

The bill is meant to decrease the number of people on probation and parole who are going back to prison on minor technical violations, which could include a failed drug test in addition to missed appointments.

Maestas argued the state currently spends roughly $40 million each year on sending people back to prison for minor violations to their parole or probation agreements that are not criminal offenses.

Thirty other states have enacted some form of probation and parole reform, Maestas said, arguing to fellow lawmakers on the House floor that the proposal is meant to “hammer bad behavior but … incentivize good behavior.”

But some Democrats voted against the proposal. They argued that it didn’t go far enough to reform a probation and parole system that often sends people back to prison over “crimes of poverty,” as Rep. Susan Herrera, D-Embudo, put it.

“If you don’t have a phone how are you gonna call your probation officer? If you don’t have a car how are you gonna get to your meeting?” Herrera said. “It’s impossible for some of these people to carry out probation as it’s written. I’m really struggling with this because I think we need so much more.”

The bill was notably also sponsored by state Rep. Bill Rehm, R-Albuquerque, a retired police officer who opposed a similar proposal last year.