March 13, 2023

Bill to end life without parole as a sentencing option heads to Guv’s desk

A bill to eliminate life in prison without the possibility of parole for juveniles sentenced as adults passed the House in the early hours of Sunday morning by a 37-25 vote.

State Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, D-Albuquerque, sponsored SB 64. House Majority Leader Gail Chasey, D-Albuquerque, a cosponsor, presented the bill to the House.

The bill would, if enacted, retroactively impact 70 adults out of a prison population of about 7,000 individuals in New Mexico and it will end the possibility of a child sentenced as an adult of being given the sentence of life without the chance of parole. It would not automatically grant parole.

The bill, which has been heard in past legislative sessions, creates a tiered system so that 14 to 17 year olds sentenced as adults would be eligible for parole in 15 years, 20 years or 25 years depending on the severity of the crime. For incarcerated individuals who commit first degree murder other than a felony murder, parole eligibility comes at 20 years. For incarcerated individuals with two or more convictions, parole eligibility is set at 25 years.

Chasey said “this is not a get out of jail card,” but Republicans argued that the bill would, if enacted, allow individuals who have committed heinous crimes get out of prison and place the public in danger. Chasey said that the recidivism rate for these individuals is around 1 percent. She said to house the individuals costs about $50,000 a year and that it is safer to give these children a chance to hope they can get out.

She said there are some who were convicted when they were children and are now in their 50s and 60s. One person was sentenced to 90 years in prison, she said.

State Rep. Dayan Hochman-Vigil, D-Albuquerque, asked if the bill utilizes a restorative justice framework.

Chasey said “it’s in that spirit.”

Hochman-Vigil, who has sponsored the bill in previous legislative sessions, said that most of the children sentenced as adults come from “horrific backgrounds,” and she argued that they should be given a second chance.

State Rep. Meredith Dixon, D-Albuquerque, asked how the bill relates to federal constitutional issues and if there was guidance from the U.S. Supreme Court on the issue

Chasey said the U.S. Supreme Court provided a constitutional distinction between children and adults and relied on brain science.

State Rep. Matthew McQueen, D-Santa Fe, asked if the parole board would consider the heinousness of the crime and factor in the rehabilitation of the individual’s psychology and life and conduct in prison. Chasey said a parole board would consider all of those things before making a decision.

State Rep. Stefani Lord, R-Sandia Park, tried to amend the bill to exclude convictions of criminal penetration from the bill. That amendment failed by 34-25. State Rep. Andrea Reeb, R-Clovis, tried to amend the bill to remove felony murder from the 15-year parole eligibility category to the 20-year parole eligibility category. That failed by 36-25. State Rep. John Block, R-Alamogordo, tried to amend the bill to exclude mass shooters from the bill. His amendment failed 36-24.

The bill now heads to the governor’s desk.