Scaled back probation, parole reforms advancing in Legislature

A legislative effort to reform parts of New Mexico’s probation and parole systems is limping along as lawmakers near the halfway mark of this year’s 30-day session. House Bill 263, with a large group of sponsors from both parties, is meant primarily to decrease the number of people on probation and parole who are sent back to jail or prison for relatively minor infractions, so-called “technical violations.” Those include some failed drug tests and missing appointments with a probation or parole officer. If passed and signed, the measure would mark the beginning of a shift for the Corrections Department’s Probation and Parole Division — from a punitive approach to a more restorative philosophy. 

That means helping people address the underlying issues that keep them in the criminal justice system instead of trying to ensure public safety with jail cells — particularly when considering people who commit lesser offenses. 

That core purpose of the bill has remained intact over the past year, as legislators have worked on a “compromise” version with state prosecutors and others following a dust-up over the proposed reforms after last year’s legislative session. The state House and Senate passed a broader set of changes in 2019, but they met Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s veto pen after Attorney General Hector Balderas and all 14 of New Mexico’s district attorneys sent her a letter outlined fatal problems as they saw them. In her veto message, Lujan Grisham asked sponsors to meet with the prosecutors and iron out their differences.

‘Major milestone’: Governor’s budget targets hepatitis C epidemic in prisons

Nearly half of the people in New Mexico’s state prisons are infected with hepatitis C, and for years, the Corrections Department has only purchased enough medicine to treat a fraction of them. But that may be about to change. The executive budget proposal Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham released Jan. 6 recommends $30 million in new funding for the Corrections Department for treatment of hepatitis C, with the expectation of curing most inmates by the end of 2024. This parallels an expansion of treatment taking place in other prison systems across the country, and would eliminate a focal point of New Mexico’s epidemic.It appears the money will pass muster with state lawmakers.

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.

NM lacks criminal justice data on race, ethnicity

From traffic stops to incarceration rates to drug arrests, New Mexico trails other states and the federal system in collecting key criminal justice data, particularly on race and ethnicity, a New Mexico In Depth analysis has found. And despite a push from state lawmakers this 60-day legislative session to improve the state’s data collection efforts to inform better, “evidence-based” criminal justice policies, searching for potential racial disparities in policing, prisons and other areas doesn’t appear much of a priority. “It’s puzzling,” said Steve Allen, policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico. “If we’re going to have some sort of data-sharing process in place and data gathering, I would think race has to be central to that. It’s just gonna take a little bit of ingenuity and a little bit of prioritization from people in power.”

There are no state rules or laws that require law enforcement agencies to track the race or ethnicity of people their officers contact, stop in vehicles or arrest, according to the top two officials at the New Mexico Sentencing Commission, the state’s clearinghouse for criminal justice information.

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.

An ignored epidemic in New Mexico’s prisons

The treatment was simple — three pills a day, best taken on a full stomach — and it cured Gabriel Serna of hepatitis C in eight weeks. He just had to wait eight years to get it. In theory, revolutionary medications have made the blood-borne, sometimes-fatal infection curable, so people with the disease need not endure the inexorable and irreversible damage it causes to their livers. Unless they are in one of New Mexico’s prisons, like Serna was for much of his wait. That’s because although the state’s inmates have the highest prevalence of hepatitis C of any group in New Mexico — more than four in 10 are infected — the prisons are hardly treating any of them: Out of some 3,000 prisoners diagnosed with the disease, just 46 received treatment for hepatitis C during the 2018 fiscal year.

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.