A new law that provides opportunity for adults who were sentenced as children to decades in prison to have a parole hearing after a certain length of time, depending on the severity of the crime, has inadvertently led to some disagreement over public records requests.
The New Mexico Department of Corrections, the New Mexico Parole Board and legal advocates presented to the interim Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee on Friday to discuss the implementation of SB 64, sponsored by state Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, D-Albuquerque. SB 64, No Life Sentence for Juveniles, eliminated the possibility of a life sentence for a juvenile convicted in a violent crime and also allowed for juveniles convicted in violent crimes to a parole hearing after 15, 20, or 25 years in prison depending on the crime’s severity.
The bill, passed this year and signed by Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, went into effect on July 1. Department of Corrections General Counsel Mark Lovato told the committee that the department received an Inspection of Public Records Act request in February from the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico for the files on the 30 inmates the bill would retroactively effect immediately if enacted.
Lovato said the request for the files amounted to nearly 26,000 pages of documents which required substantial administrative hours redacting sensitive information under IPRA statute. The bill, Lovato said, came to $13,218.
Lovato said the ACLU-NM, which had requested the documents, told him that was considerably beyond their budget so Lovato said he arrived at a compromise wherein ACLU lawyers could review the documents in a room in Santa Fe for two days.
He said the ACLU lawyer spent half a day and requested copies of a few hundred pages, which amounted to a charge of $68.25.
He said neither invoice has been paid.
Denali Wilson, an attorney with the ACLU-NM, said SB 64 created the right to counsel at parole hearings and that lawyers need to be able to look through inmate files “to be able to describe to the board any disciplinary infractions and change in behavior.”
“It’s really key as counsel in these hearings,” she said.
Wilson said the ACLU-NM had offered to scan the documents with their own devices or to pick up the documents to reduce cost but the DC had not permitted them to do either.
She also said that when the ACLU wasn’t allowed to make copies, they “triaged” and took disciplinary records they knew would be required but that they are “missing info that is crucial to these hearings coming up.”
She said that the ACLU should be allowed to make copies or treat the IPRA request as one that comes from counsel for an indigent applicant awaiting trial.
Levato said the IPRA statute allows the agency to make the documents available for inspection but the department charges an entity for photocopying.
“That was the decision made based on the legal analysis and where we’re at in the proceedings. It’s a different story if facing conviction. Then you have constitutional rights in terms of pre-conviction. That’s different than an administrative hearing on parole,” he said.
State Rep. Gail Chasey, D-Albuquerque, said the DC may not be interpreting IPRA correctly, that constitutional rights include the right to personal freedom and perhaps the matter needs to be decided by the courts.
Sedillo Lopez said the legislature may need to amend the law.
“The right to counsel can be meaningless if counsel is not prepared for what comes up. It’s of concern. If the individual doesn’t get out the first time, it’s five years between hearings and that’s huge,” she said.
State Sen. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, said “I think the backlog is the problem.” Going forward, only two-to-four individuals will seek parole hearings a year, once the parole board has held hearings for the initial retroactive 30 to 35 inmates, Maestas said.
Some of the legislators reacted to the fact that the DC is still relying on paper documents. Melanie Martinez, deputy secretary for DC, said the department is working on moving to electronic files.