January 29, 2022

Bill to end life in prison without parole for juveniles clears committee

The New Mexico State Capitol, or Roundhouse Wikicommons.

The Senate Health and Public Affairs Committee, with some members absent, voted 5-to-1 to pass SB 43, which would eliminate the possibility of a child being sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Republican state Sen. Gregg Schemedes of Tijeras voted against the bill. State Sens. Jacob Candelaria, I-Albuquerque, David Gallegos, R-Eunice and Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, were not present for the vote. All the Democratic members of the committee voted in favor.  

The bill, sponsored by state Sen. Antoinette Sedillo-Lopez, a Democrat from Albuquerque, said the courts have asked the legislative branch to clarify this particular part of the law, which if passed would prevent a child from receiving a life sentence without parole and would allow a parole hearing after 15 years of time served. Currently, there is no one serving a life sentence for a crime they committed as a child, Sedillo-Lopez said.

The portion of the bill that would allow a parole hearing after 15 years caused controversy during Friday’s committee meeting and a few district attorneys and various victims spoke out against it. Some victims and family members of victims said allowing perpetrators of serious crimes to be eligible for parole after 15 years would retraumatize victims and that a person killed doesn’t receive a second chance.

Molly Gill, vice president of policy for FAMM, a sentence-reform organization in Washington D.C., spoke through the virtual platform and said 15 years is not the most lenient standard but the “normal standard” and said that in 2021 there were bills similar to SB 43 introduced in several states. Marcus Montoya, District Attorney for Taos, Colfax and Union counties said 15 years is too lenient and called it “not the norm.” 

Several advocates spoke about adolescent brains and studies that indicate that the human brain doesn’t stop developing until the age of 26. Several family members of incarcerated individuals said they had seen their family member change and become a different person over time.

Sedillo-Lopez said that “children have an enormous capacity for change.”

Schmedes said he wondered why people could have taken a shotgun to school fifty years ago for hunting purposes afterward but today “we have terrible crimes, school shootings, mass shootings, extremely violent crime.”

Sedillo-Lopez said “this is a more philosophical debate,” and that there has been violence throughout time, citing women burned at the stake for being “witches” hundreds of years ago and public hangings.

The bill goes to Senate Judiciary Committee next.