Long sought criminal justice reforms head to Governor

Lawmakers with an eye toward righting longstanding wrongs in the state’s criminal justice system— real or perceived — achieved success this session, pushing through reforms doomed under former Republican Gov. Susana Martinez’s vigilant eye as a former prosecutor. Democrats’ bolstered majority in the House, the margin they maintained in the Senate and Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s win in November set a different tone coming into the session. And the largest budget surplus in recent memory meant justice system reforms that carried a price tag were suddenly possible. Legislation aimed at reducing New Mexico’s chronically high crime rates cleared the Senate and House, too. But this year’s bills had a different feel from those avidly debated in the recent past.

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

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.

Another session with no fix for patchwork of police shooting reviews

Despite another year in which New Mexico led the nation for fatal police shootings by population, how best to ensure public trust when those cases are reviewed for possible wrongdoing remains a vexing question. And with less than 48 hours left in this year’s 60-day legislative session, another year likely will pass without a fix from lawmakers. At a time when New Mexico is swimming in cash, neither lawmakers nor the state’s 14 district attorneys have appeared to push for the additional money it would take to create a uniform, statewide review system. “This session, there really hasn’t been anything that would address this,” Rick Tedrow, Eleventh Judicial district attorney and immediate past president of the New Mexico District Attorneys Association, told New Mexico In Depth. “In terms of funding for extra prosecutors to focus on these cases, it really should be the DAs asking for that.

Several significant criminal justice bills still alive as session nears end

Democratic legislative leaders predicted criminal justice reform would be among the top priorities for the 60-day session that began in January. It appears they were right. Several substantial shifts in how New Mexico approaches crime and punishment remain alive as the session speeds toward its conclusion on Saturday. Some of them have been years in the making. A Senate bill to “ban the box,” prohibiting private sector employers from inquiring about people’s past criminal records in the early stages of an employment process, has passed the upper chamber and appears headed for a vote in the House.

ACLU: NM has flawed data about solitary confinement

Cover of ACLU-NM report about discrepancy in NM solitary confinement statistics. The American Civil Liberties Union New Mexico appears to have uncovered a significant statistical deficiency in New Mexico criminal justice data. In September 2018, the state Corrections Department reported 4 percent of inmates in its prisons were being held in solitary confinement — defined as spending 22 hours or more a day alone for 15 or more consecutive days. A research team working with the ACLU found that the rate was actually 9 percent. Steve Allen, policy director for the ACLU of New Mexico, chalks the disparity up to a lack of uniform policies, practices and data collection.

Measure to change parole process for ‘30-year lifers’ advances

People serving 30-years-to-life sentences in New Mexico state prisons for murder and certain other crimes could soon find an easier path to freedom after three decades behind bars. On a 51-16 vote Sunday, the state House of Representatives passed a bill that would mandate a shift in state law: from inmates having to show why they should be released after 30 years to requiring the Parole Board to demonstrate convincingly why they should remain locked up. House Bill 564, sponsored by Democratic representatives Antonio “Moe” Maestas and Gail Chasey, Republican Sen. Sander Rue and Democratic Sen. Richard Martinez, closely mirrors a proposal that died in committee in 2017 after then-Gov. Susana Martinez signaled she would veto it. The measure tracks an issue New Mexico In Depth and the Santa Fe Reporter uncovered in an investigation published in March 2017. Among the findings: Power at the Parole Board had concentrated with Sandra Dietz, the Martinez-appointed board chair who was philosophically opposed to paroling people who had received sentences of 30-to-life; and just six times out of 89 did the board release someone on parole between 2010 and early 2017—among the lowest rates in the nation.

Despite concerns, judge refuses to dismiss criminal case against black man

Senior U.S. District Judge James Parker / Courtesy of U.S. District Court

A federal judge has denied an Albuquerque black man’s request to dismiss methamphetamine trafficking and gun charges based on his claim that agents targeted him because of his race during a monthslong undercover sting operation in 2016. In a 15-page order issued Feb. 11, U.S. Senior District Judge James Parker appeared to wrestle with whether agents from the federal bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) had singled out 46-year-old Yusef Casanova and other black people for arrest while ignoring the crimes of white people. That was the core of Casanova’s argument in asking Parker to dismiss his case. Noting that aspects of the operation — and the results of other ATF operations around the country — were “troubling,” Parker, wrote that Casanova had not overcome the high threshold necessary to prove illegal racial profiling.

APD officer: 2016 federal sting operation focused on ‘volume,’ not ‘higher-level guys’

Tim Hotle, a 12-year veteran of the Albuquerque Police Department, in sworn testimony this week undercut federal authorities’ long-running narrative about a controversial 2016 law enforcement operation that snatched up disproportionate numbers of blacks and Hispanics. During his 45 minutes or so on the witness stand, Hotle told U.S. Senior District Judge James Parker that as a representative of APD he had helped plan the Albuquerque operation pushed by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and the local U.S. Attorney’s Office. Authorities have repeatedly contended they arrested “the worst of the worst,” and a summary report of the operation stated that its goal was to infiltrate drug trafficking organizations “facilitated by” Mexican cartels. Most of the 103 people arrested, however, were picked up for their involvement in small-quantity drug sales; few had the types of violent criminal histories authorities said they were going after. Hotle’s testimony further undermined the federal government’s claims.  

“We weren’t after the higher-level guys,” Hotle said from the stand during a court hearing involving one of the defendants arrested in the operation.

New direction, and infusion of money, seen for criminal justice system

Lawmakers are hopeful that 2019 brings an opportunity to significantly overhaul major parts of the New Mexico criminal justice system, after what one key state senator called a “lost decade” that saw myriad ideas but scant action. Bills are expected to address chronically high crime rates across the state, with a focus on speedier justice in cases involving violence and more lifeboats for people whose lesser crimes have saddled them with the stigma of a criminal record. There’s talk of a massive “omnibus” bill that would feature changes to New Mexico’s probation and parole systems, reparations for crime victims, the way law enforcement uses eyewitness testimony to seek convictions and several other laws. Then there are the reforms that, in years past, have found support from both political parties but ultimately met the veto pen of Gov. Susana Martinez, a former prosecutor who for eight years stuck to her belief that New Mexico needed tougher penalties for lawbreakers, but largely stiff-armed proposals to address systemic injustices. Those shifts — likely to be proposed in individual bills — would include limiting the use of solitary confinement in the state’s prisons and jails, creating a pathway for some offenders to have their criminal records wiped clean after a period of time and prohibiting private-sector employers from inquiring about job applicants’ past convictions in most instances.