Gov vetoes probation, parole reforms — with some reluctance

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Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has vetoed a set of reforms to the state’s probation and parole systems that would have, among other changes, reduced the number of “technical violations” that could land someone back behind bars and required the Parole Board to detail denials for those sentenced to 30-years-to-life who are seeking release.

The move comes after state Attorney General Hector Balderas and New Mexico’s 14 district attorneys pushed back against the bill in a letter to the governor as this year’s 60-day legislative session came to a close last month. The prosecutors argued that House Bill 564, if signed into law, “poses a significant public safety risk.”

Lujan Grisham’s veto message is time-stamped Thursday at 11:12 p.m.

“It’s something we’re not necessarily happy about,” Lujan Grisham’s spokesman, Tripp Stelnicki, told New Mexico In Depth Friday morning. Changes sought through the bill “will be aggressively and expeditiously addressed in the interim with the DAs and the attorney general. The governor has that full expectation.”

In her veto message, Lujan Grisham sided with HB564’s sponsors — Republican Sen. Sander Rue and Democratic representatives Antonio “Moe” Maestas and Gail Chasey — in pointing out that the prosecutors waited until after the session to complain about the bill.

They “did not propose any amendments to HB564 when the bill was being drafted and debated,” the message reads. “Although I do not agree with many of their characterizations of HB564 or when they chose to express their concerns, I have vetoed HB564 to provide opportunity for these stakeholders to weigh in on the important issues addressed by the bill.”

NMID has closely tracked one of those issues since co-publishing an investigation with the Santa Fe Reporter in March 2017. Among the findings: Power at the Parole Board had concentrated with Sandra Dietz, then Gov. Susana 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.

The bill would have changed current state law by ordering the Parole Board to enter “specific findings” for why it denied parole to any inmate sentenced to life imprisonment after the inmate had been locked up for 30 years. Now, the board simply checks a series of boxes on a form to indicate why it chose to deny parole.

HB564 also would have significantly increased the number of people under state supervision but out of jail or prison for alleged crimes and convictions. That’s because it would have allowed people to remain on probation or parole, rather than being reincarcerated, even if they had committed a “non-technical violation,” defined as absconding or being arrested on a new felony or misdemeanor charge. (Technical violations include offenses such as failing a drug test.)

The bill also would have required people released on parole — those who have served time in prison — and probation — those who are sentenced to supervision without incarceration — to be screened with a scientific risk assessment tool. And it spelled out the purpose of parole: “To enforce victim restitution, hold persons accountable for their criminal conduct, promote a person’s reintegration into law-abiding society and reduce the risk that the person will commit new offenses.”

After some significant revisions, HB564 passed both legislative chambers by wide, bipartisan margins. The House vote was 51-16; the Senate passed it on a 26-6 vote.

In her veto message, Lujan Grisham pointed out that several states have made changes to their probation and parole systems similar to those sought in HB564. Those reforms “have improved public safety, reduced recidivism rates, and decreased taxpayer costs by prioritizing limited prison space for dangerous criminals.” She pointed out that a similar shift in probation and parole by North Carolina in 2011 has led to the closing of 10 prisons and a prison population reduction of 3,400 people.

“Being tough on crime is not inconsistent with being smart on crime, and our state needs to be both,” the governor wrote, adding that she intends to bring the state’s prosecutors and reform advocates together before next year’s legislative session “to seek common ground” on probation and parole changes.

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