Bill forcing Parole Board to explain decisions on ‘30-year lifers’ heads to governor

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A set of reforms to the state’s probation and parole systems is headed to the governor’s desk, with subtle changes to how the Parole Board considers requests for freedom by people sentenced to 30-years-to life in prison.

House Bill 564 passed the Senate Tuesday after tweaks from that chamber’s Judiciary Committee, then cleared the House on a concurrence vote Wednesday.

Current state law forces inmates sentenced to 30-years-to life in prison to show why they should be set free. The bill appears to shift the onus between the inmate and the state.

In its original form the bill would have shifted that burden entirely to the state, mandating  those inmates be paroled unless the board “makes a finding that the inmate is unable or unwilling to fulfill the obligations of a law-abiding citizen.”

The bill heading to the governor now says before paroling an inmate, the board would have to interview the inmate and “consider all pertinent information concerning the inmate.”

Another change to current law would eliminate the requirement that the board consider the “circumstances of the offense.” The revised bill requires the board to detail a finding that release is in the “best interest of society and the inmate,” conclude that the inmate is “willing to fulfill the obligations of a law-abiding citizen” and provide in writing specific support for its decision to grant or deny parole to the inmate.

A similar bill, filed during the 2017 legislative session, addressed an issue that New Mexico In Depth examined in a story published that year. That report showed New Mexico had one of the worst parole grant-rates in the nation for people serving life sentences with the chance for parole. The 2017 bill died in committee.

HB564 passed the House 51-16 last month, and the Senate pushed it through 26-6 earlier this week.