NM Supreme Court again faced with COVID-19 in prisons, Guv says there is not much else that can be done
As the number of COVID-19 cases and related deaths in New Mexico continue to increase throughout the state and the state is halfway through a two week stay-at-home order, criminal justice advocates continue to push Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to do more to reduce prison populations.
There have been two attempts to get the courts involved, but the latest legal challenge, a class-action lawsuit, was dismissed last month. The judge in that case ruled that the court did not have jurisdiction to weigh-in because the inmate plaintiffs did not show that they had exhausted other remedies like an appeal through the New Mexico Department of Corrections.
Now, the plaintiffs—two advocacy groups and nearly a dozen inmates—are taking the issue to the Supreme Court for a second time, albeit with a different ask of the justices.
In the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, the New Mexico Law Offices of the Public Defender, the American Civil Liberties Union and the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association asked the state Supreme Court to intervene and compel Lujan Grisham and her corrections department to broaden their scope of how to limit prison populations in light of COVID-19. Those two groups ultimately failed to convince the New Mexico Supreme Court that inmates were subjected to cruel and unusual punishment, a violation of the U.S. Constitution, and to compel Lujan Grisham and the Department of Corrections to do more than release inmates 30 days early.
For her part, Lujan Grisham signed an executive order that essentially expanded an already existing provision and allowed some inmates out 30 days before their scheduled release date. The qualifications for early release under Lujan Grisham’s executive order are narrow and prompted groups like the public defender’s office, the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association and the ACLU to call for things like expedited parole for certain inmates and allowing some inmates to finish their sentence at home.
‘Getting really tricky to figure out where people can go’
Faegre Drinker, an international law firm, joined with Albuquerque-based attorney Ryan Villa to represent the plaintiffs in the class action suit that may be heard by the state’s high court.
The question before the court will not be whether or not the inmates are subjected to cruel and unusual punishment or even if the state has done enough to limit prison populations. Instead, justices would decide whether a district court judge can hear a case before all other options have been exhausted.
In a statement, Faegre Drinker attorney Chris Casolaro said time is running out for inmates facing the risk of COVID-19 as infection rates in prisons are rising, nearly every day.
“Coronavirus cases continue to surge in New Mexico, putting incarcerated people in far greater danger than they already were,” Casolaro said.