February 15, 2022

Bill to end life sentences without parole for youth pulled amid pushback

The so-called Second Chance bill will have no chance during this year’s legislative session.

Sponsors of Senate Bill 43, which would’ve banned life without the possibility of parole as a sentencing option for juveniles convicted of first-degree murder, have pulled the proposed piece of legislation from consideration.

“In the final week of the session, it has been frustrating to watch a chorus of voices drowned out by a handful of District Attorneys and other parties who have misrepresented this issue to victims of tragedy across our state,” the sponsors wrote in a joint statement. “We negotiated in good faith but the goalposts kept moving, and we cannot accept changes that undermine the intent of the bill.”

The sponsors plan to bring the bring the bill back next year.

“It was really unfortunate that the parties were unable to reach consensus on this issue,” Rep. Dayan Hochman-Vigil, D-Albuquerque, said Monday. “But we’re looking forward to bringing the bill back next year and negotiating in a way that all parties feel comfortable.”

The Senate sponsor, Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, D-Albuquerque, said Monday district attorneys “injected themselves into the bill” and tried to change it in a way that would undermine the intent.

“We weren’t going to change it,” she said.

The bill, which had received a message from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, turned into a political dilemma for the governor, who is running for reelection this year, as she pursues a tough-on-crime agenda during the session, which ends at noon Thursday.

Under the proposal, youthful offenders would be eligible for parole after serving 15 years behind bars unless they’re eligible for parole sooner. If parole were denied, the offender would be entitled to a parole hearing “not less than every five years thereafter.”

After the Senate passed the bill last week on a party-line vote, the House Consumer and Public Affairs Committee advanced it Thursday, also along partisan lines.

Rep. Randall Pettigrew, R-Lovington, introduced an amendment he said was the result of some behind-the-scenes negotiations, including with members of Lujan Grisham’s staff, that would have extended the 15-year parole eligibility timeline to 20 years. But Democrats tabled the motion.

“Advocates for SB43 refuse to be bullied into amendments by the district attorneys and the governor,” Denali Wilson, the expert witness on the bill, tweeted Sunday night. “In a campaign driven by the people it impacts, we will not compromise out those same people. We are taking negotiations off the table and returning next year.”

During debate on the bill in the Senate, Sen. Crystal Diamond, R-Elephant Butte, tearfully apologized to Nicole Chavez, who was sitting in the gallery. Chavez’s teenage son, Jaydon Chavez-Silver, was killed in a drive-by shooting in Albuquerque in 2015.

“Nicole, this bill’s gonna pass,” Diamond said, sobbing. “And I’m sorry for the pain it’s causing you today. And the grief you carry every day.”

Diamond expressed relief Monday the bill had been pulled from consideration.

“Senate Bill 43 forced the families of many victims to relive their tragedies, and I am grateful that they were heard,” she said. “The announcement that the bill has been removed from consideration this session is a testament of their advocacy and hard work, and I was honored to help amplify their voices.”

In a statement, Chavez thanked Republican members of the Senate and House for “embracing our cause and shedding light on the potential impacts of this unjust and misguided bill.”

Chavez said the idea her son’s killer would potentially be released from custody after 15 years for two separate murders if the bill was signed into law was a pain she was ill-prepared to face.

“As a woman of faith, I believe in redemption; but the power of redemption does not abolish the need for justice,” she wrote.