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

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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.

The bill would change current state law by ordering that any inmate sentenced to life imprisonment “shall be paroled” after 30 years unless the Parole Board “makes a finding that the inmate is unable or unwilling to fulfill the obligations of a law-abiding citizen.” It then lists several factors the board can consider. Existing law says an inmate sentenced to life imprisonment “becomes eligible for a parole hearing” after serving 30 years. The board must check several boxes before deciding what to do, including an interview of the inmate and consideration of “the circumstances of the offense.”

If passed and signed into law by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, the measure would still allow the board to consider the original crime, but it “shall not deny to an inmate who was sentenced to life imprisonment based solely on the offense for which the inmate was convicted.”

The bill also would require people released on parole — those who have served time in prison — and probation — those who are sentenced to supervision without incarceration — be screened with a scientific risk assessment tool. And it spells 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.”

HB 564 has not been scheduled for a committee hearing in the Senate.

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