Children sentenced as adults are disproportionately children of color

When Carissa McGee was 16 years old, she was sentenced to 21 years in an adult correctional facility for stabbing two members of her family. McGee told NM Political Report she was mentally ill at the time, but the judge still sentenced her to more than two decades in prison. “I experienced my ultimate low. […]

Children sentenced as adults are disproportionately children of color

When Carissa McGee was 16 years old, she was sentenced to 21 years in an adult correctional facility for stabbing two members of her family.

McGee told NM Political Report she was mentally ill at the time, but the judge still sentenced her to more than two decades in prison.

“I experienced my ultimate low. I was sentenced at 16 years old. I didn’t know what 21 years would feel like,” McGee said.

McGee, who is now in her 30s, was granted early release after serving nine years. She said that before her sentencing a children’s psychiatric center evaluated her. Four of the five doctors said she was amenable to treatment.

But the sentencing judge listened to the fifth doctor who disagreed.

Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Jones v. Mississippi to uphold the process defendant Brett Jones went through in the courts when he was sentenced to life without parole for a crime he committed at age 15. The court declined to require a finding of permanent incorrigibility before sentencing a child to life without parole. The decision affirmed prior Supreme Court precedent requiring sentencing judges to consider youth and its attendant mitigating factors before sentencing a child to life without parole.

In New Mexico, children can and often are sentenced as adults for violent crimes even though studies have shown that children have less impulse control and that the brain doesn’t completely stabilize until a person reaches their mid-20s. This makes children more susceptible to peer pressure and decision making based on passion, impulse or momentary excitement, said Denali Wilson, a Corinne Wolfe Transformative Advocacy Fellow and Soros Justice Advocacy Fellow for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico.

“It’s like the entire engine is there but there’s no brake,” Wilson told NM Political Report.

Children in New Mexico can be sentenced to life without parole for violent offenses. They can also be sentenced for an amount of prison time that, essentially, locks them away for the rest of their lives.

“They could be sentenced for life imprisonment or sentenced to 90 years or 70 years. That’s what we see in New Mexico,” Wilson said. 

In New Mexico a term of life imprisonment means the state requires the person to serve 30 years before parole eligibility, Wilson said.

During McGee’s time in prison, she was able to avail herself of a program called Project Echo, through the University of New Mexico, which helped her to get a health care certificate. She was able to do peer work with her own prison population. She said she found that overwhelmingly, the women she encountered in prison had been victims of sexual assault and, like McGee, suffered from mental health disorders.

“I didn’t meet one woman in the whole nine years who didn’t suffer from a mental health disorder. We were all so very similar,” McGee said.

The work and training McGee was able to do helped her to heal and gave her “a light at the end of the tunnel.” She is now a training support analyst of New Mexico Peer Education Project, a collaboration between Project Echo and New Mexico Department of Corrections. Through that program, she continues to work with the state’s prison population.

But, New Mexico has “one of the lowest grant rates of parole from life sentences of any state in the U.S.” Wilson said.

Wilson said she has clients who are in their mid-40s and mid-50s serving time in New Mexico for crimes they committed as minors.

State Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez introduced SB 247 in the 2020 regular session. SB 247 passed the Senate but died on the House floor, Sedillo Lopez said.

The bill would have amended the criminal code to prohibit New Mexico from sentencing a child to life without parole. Sedillo Lopez told NM Political Report that the fact that a child can be sentenced to life without parole in New Mexico is unconstitutional.

“The Jones v. Mississippi decision affirms a judge must have the discretion to impose a lesser punishment than life without parole for a child under the age of 18. I will continue to seek reform of New Mexico law to ensure that children in unique circumstances are considered in our scheme of punishment,” she said.

But, she called the Supreme Court’s decision, written by Justice Brett Kavanaugh, “disappointing.”

“It is disappointing that Justice Kavanaugh upheld a life sentence without the possibility of parole for a 15 year-old,” she said.

Wilson said the Supreme Court’s 6-3 decision declined to give guidance on sentencing children to life without parole.

“The results will be uneven and arbitrary based much more on geography and the race of the defendant rather than culpability or the capacity of change. It’ll depend on where you are and what you look like. That’ll be the result of Jones v. Mississippi,” Wilson said.

Already, children of color are disproportionately affected by long sentencing, Wilson said.

Wilson said that in New Mexico, 71 percent of youth serving excessively long adult sentences are Hispanic or Latino.

But Black youth are over represented at the highest rate, she said. Black youth make up 6 percent of those serving long adult sentences, which is over twice their representation in the general population in New Mexico. Wilson called it “an issue of racial equity and racial justice here in New Mexico.”

Nationally, Black youth are sentenced to life without parole as children at a per capita rate that is 10 times that of white youth, Wilson said.

“It’s disparate for Latinos and the Native population but for Black youth, it’s the most disparate,” Wilson said.

McGee, who is African-American, agreed. She said a young, white male who murdered family members around the same time as her crime, received a much lighter sentence than she did. McGee’s victims survived her attack.

“I definitely think my race and gender played a factor in it. I felt like I was targeted and given a bigger sentence solely based on my demographics,” McGee said.

We're ad free

That means that we rely on support from readers like you. Help us keep reporting on the most important New Mexico Stories by donating today.

Related

Effort to challenge six laws enacted last year comes to an end

Effort to challenge six laws enacted last year comes to an end

Earlier this month, the New Mexico Supreme Court denied and dismissed the effort to challenge six laws enacted in 2023. The New Mexico Supreme…
Governor to call special session for public safety legislation this summer

Governor to call special session for public safety legislation this summer

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced that she will call the Legislature into a special session this summer to address public safety legislation that did…
Emily’s List endorses seven candidates for Legislature

Emily’s List endorses seven candidates for Legislature

Emily’s List, a nonprofit that supports women candidates and reproductive rights, endorsed seven incumbents facing general election opponents in New Mexico legislative elections. All…
Two PFAS chemicals designated hazardous substances under Superfund law

Two PFAS chemicals designated hazardous substances under Superfund law

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released a final rule Friday to designate two types of PFAS chemicals as hazardous substances. Those two chemicals are perfluorooctanoic…
BLM finalizes controversial public lands rule

BLM finalizes controversial public lands rule

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management finalized its controversial public lands rule on Thursday. This rule is controversial because it allows for conservation leasing…
Haaland signs order protecting sacred lands near Placitas

Haaland signs order protecting sacred lands near Placitas

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland signed an order on Thursday to withdraw more than 4,200 acres of land in Sandoval County near Placitas from mineral…
Amid new graduation requirements, what do high schoolers want to learn?

Amid new graduation requirements, what do high schoolers want to learn?

By Margaret O’Hara, The Santa Fe New Mexican The main things that bring Brayan Chavez to school every day: Seeing, talking to and engaging with…
Special ed teachers hope lawmakers OK pay raises, admin changes

Special ed teachers hope lawmakers OK pay raises, admin changes

By Margaret O’Hara, The Santa Fe New Mexican Brittany Behenna Griffith has a laundry list of adjectives to describe the ideal special education teacher:…
Lawmakers must find consensus on competing education spending plans

Lawmakers must find consensus on competing education spending plans

By Margaret O’Hara, The Santa Fe New Mexican A challenging task awaits New Mexico lawmakers in the next 30 days: Reconciling three very different…
Health workers fear it’s profits before protection as CDC revisits airborne transmission

Health workers fear it’s profits before protection as CDC revisits airborne transmission

Amy Maxmen, KFF Health News Four years after hospitals in New York City overflowed with covid-19 patients, emergency physician Sonya Stokes remains shaken by…
Lujan Grisham, Biden admin announce $10 million in federal funds for tribes, pueblos

Lujan Grisham, Biden admin announce $10 million in federal funds for tribes, pueblos

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced Friday $10 million in funding from the federal American Rescue Plan Act was awarded to six tribal nations and…
Proposal to curb executive powers moves to House Judiciary

Proposal to curb executive powers moves to House Judiciary

The House Government, Elections and Indian Affairs Committee discussed a potential constitutional amendment that seeks to limit the governor’s executive powers. The committee approved…
Abortion fund provider rebrands and holds open house

Abortion fund provider rebrands and holds open house

An abortion fund provider unveiled a rebrand and offered an open house in Las Cruces to celebrate the organization’s new name, mission and values. …
Stansbury introduces judicial ethics bill on U.S. Supreme Court steps

Stansbury introduces judicial ethics bill on U.S. Supreme Court steps

U.S. Rep. Melanie Stansbury announced a bill on Thursday that would, if enacted, establish judicial ethics to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Judicial Ethics…
Politics and abortion, how much will it matter?

Politics and abortion, how much will it matter?

At the national level, abortion is still a high-stakes issue with both major presidential candidates talking about it in their campaigns, but it may…
Abortion fund provider rebrands and holds open house

Abortion fund provider rebrands and holds open house

An abortion fund provider unveiled a rebrand and offered an open house in Las Cruces to celebrate the organization’s new name, mission and values. …
Politics and abortion, how much will it matter?

Politics and abortion, how much will it matter?

At the national level, abortion is still a high-stakes issue with both major presidential candidates talking about it in their campaigns, but it may…
How the AZ Supreme Court decision on abortion impacts New Mexico

How the AZ Supreme Court decision on abortion impacts New Mexico

The Arizona Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday that an 1864 abortion ban is enforceable, throwing another state bordering New Mexico into the situation of…
Effort to challenge six laws enacted last year comes to an end

Effort to challenge six laws enacted last year comes to an end

Earlier this month, the New Mexico Supreme Court denied and dismissed the effort to challenge six laws enacted in 2023. The New Mexico Supreme…
Vasquez calls out Republicans for ‘inaction’ on border policy

Vasquez calls out Republicans for ‘inaction’ on border policy

U.S. Rep. Gabriel “Gabe” Vasquez, a Democrat who represents the state’s 2nd Congressional District along the U.S.-Mexico border, cosponsored a resolution on Monday calling…
Politics and abortion, how much will it matter?

Politics and abortion, how much will it matter?

At the national level, abortion is still a high-stakes issue with both major presidential candidates talking about it in their campaigns, but it may…
Two PFAS chemicals designated hazardous substances under Superfund law

Two PFAS chemicals designated hazardous substances under Superfund law

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released a final rule Friday to designate two types of PFAS chemicals as hazardous substances. Those two chemicals are perfluorooctanoic…
New Mexico Voices for Children has new leadership

New Mexico Voices for Children has new leadership

New Mexico Voices for Children, an organization that focuses on tax policy and how it impacts children in poverty, has new leadership. Gabrielle Uballez…
Abortion fund provider rebrands and holds open house

Abortion fund provider rebrands and holds open house

An abortion fund provider unveiled a rebrand and offered an open house in Las Cruces to celebrate the organization’s new name, mission and values. …

GET INVOLVED

© 2023 New Mexico Political Report