Executive Director of Parole Board resigns, takes new state job

The executive director of the New Mexico Parole Board has moved to another state job, as fresh controversy surrounds the board’s handling of parole hearings for the state’s “30-year lifer” inmates and lawmakers consider a bill that would check the board’s power.  Sherry Stephens’ last day as executive director was Friday, Parole Board Operations Manager Megan Moreno told New Mexico In Depth and SFR. Stephens gave two weeks’ notice on Feb. 27 and is now working at the state department of Aging and Long Term Services.  Moreno said Stephens was not fired from her position at the state agency, which oversees the conditions of release for thousands of parolees around the state each year and decides whether people charged with certain capital crimes go free.

NM Auditor: Conflict of interest found in Corrections Dept. Audit

A former deputy cabinet secretary at the New Mexico Corrections Department was put in charge of the financial relationship between the department and a television production company for which she had worked only months before, according to a new report from the state Auditor’s Office. It appears that Alex Sanchez waived at least $20,000 in fees owed by Lucky 8 TV, LLC, to the Corrections Department in June 2016 after having left  the company’s employ just three months earlier, the report shows. The state Auditor’s evidence for that claim is an email Sanchez sent employees of the company in which she noted the waived fees for the filming of Lucky 8’s prison reality series, “Behind Bars: Rookie Year.”

The Corrections Department could not provide any evidence or documentation that anyone other than Sanchez determined the amounts to be billed to the production company. Additionally, Lucky 8 was allowed to begin filming a third season of its show last year even though the company still owed the state $42,000 from the previous two seasons, the audit found. The arrangement amounted to a conflict of interest in which “not all of the decisions appear to be in the best interest of the state,” the auditors said.

Bills would limit solitary confinement, require reporting in NM

House and Senate lawmakers are pushing identical proposals that would abolish solitary confinement for pregnant women and children and steeply curtail its use on people living with mental illness in New Mexico’s jails and prisons. If passed into law, supporters say either bill would provide a statutory definition for “isolated confinement” in the state and much needed transparency on the scope of the controversial practice of leaving inmates alone in their cells for 22 hours a day or more with little to no contact with others and few opportunities to participate in educational or rehabilitative programs.

“Right now, we do not know on any given day if it’s 100 or 1,000 people in isolated confinement in the state of New Mexico,” Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, the Democratic sponsor of HB175, said. “Once we have some data, we can have confidence that the Corrections Department and the counties are scaling back the use of solitary confinement.”

Numerous studies, including one by the advocacy group Disability Rights Washington, have shown that isolation in a prison cell can exacerbate existing mental illnesses and create new ones where none existed before. The United Nations and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry have argued that solitary confinement is particularly dangerous for children, whose brains are still developing, and condemned its use. New Mexico has a troubled history with solitary confinement.

A year in solitary: ‘I didn’t want to lose it’

FARMINGTON—Joshua Saiz paces outside his mobile home, anxiously puffing on a cigarette and, alternately, flashing a grin at his young daughter. The gravel crunches under his shoes as he takes six short steps up, makes a tight turn, then six steps back. Always six steps up, six steps back. The 40-year-old former oil field laborer can’t bring to mind why he’s so consistent. But his wife, Nakrista Saiz, has the answer: “I’ve asked him, too.

‘Constitutional crisis’ could dominate criminal justice debate

Republicans and Democrats will debate what criminal justice reform means during the 60-day legislative session. But a much more serious problem needs their attention, New Mexico Chief Justice Charles Daniels told the Legislature on Thursday.
“I wish I could tell you that New Mexico is providing the functioning justice system promised in the constitution that created the ground rules of our government, but I can’t,” Daniels said.
A justice system requires enough money to make it function.

DAs seek statewide policy on police shootings

District attorneys from around New Mexico are working on a statewide policy for investigating and prosecuting shootings by law enforcement, Andrew Oxford reports in today’s Santa Fe New Mexican. It’s the second action taken by public officials since the Santa Fe New Mexican and New Mexico In Depth published a story that examined the challenges inherent in investigating and prosecuting fatal law enforcement shootings. Last week Attorney General Hector Balderas announced he had created a committee to audit how each law enforcement agency around the state reviews the use of deadly force by its officers. On Monday Balderas announced he was collaborating “with the New Mexico District Attorney’s Association on its effort to standardize what is currently a patchwork of often-unwritten protocols across 13 judicial districts when it comes to police shootings,” Oxford reports. Oxford writes that police in New Mexico have fatally shot 41 people since January 2015, more people per capita than in any other state, according to The New Mexican’s analysis of data maintained by The Washington Post.

Feds confirm investigation of APD body cam allegations

Federal officials on Thursday said they are conducting a criminal investigation of allegations that Albuquerque Police Department employees altered and deleted body camera video.

The Department of Justice has received “several requests” seeking a criminal probe, Elizabeth Martinez, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Albuquerque, said in an emailed response to questions from New Mexico In Depth.

Relationships make prosecuting police difficult

Detective Geoff Stone shifted in his chair behind the witness stand and glanced at the defendants’ table where two former Albuquerque Police Department officers sat. Stone knew the men well. He attended the police academy around the same time as one of the men, Keith Sandy, and worked the same late-night shift on the city’s northeast side with the other, Dominique Perez. But with his two former colleagues on trial for murder after gunning down a mentally ill homeless man in March 2014 during an hours-long standoff in the Sandia foothills, special prosecutor Randi McGinn wanted to know whether Stone’s relationship with the officers was a problem when it fell on him to investigate them. “No,” Stone told her after a moment.