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State faces problems with re-entry from prison

SANTA FE – New Mexico lawmakers wrestled with this juxtaposition Wednesday: The state’s prisons are approaching capacity, but there aren’t enough halfway houses where inmates can be safely released and get the services they need to stay out of trouble.

And the families of crime victims, meanwhile, warned legislators against diminishing their voice when prisoners are considered for parole.

The testimony added up to a tense four-hour hearing before the Legislature’s Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee. The group meets between legislative sessions to consider policy and recommend proposals to the full Legislature. It took no action Wednesday.

Much of the debate centered on the circumstances under which state prisoners can be released on parole.

Members of the state Parole Board and New Mexico Sentencing Commission said there aren’t enough halfway houses and transitional living programs that inmates can be released into. In some cases, that means the prisoners stay in custody.

No one disputed the need for more services.

But state Sen. Bill O’Neill – an Albuquerque Democrat who’s worked for the Juvenile Parole Board and a transitional living center, Dismas House – said the adult parole board isn’t properly considering the release of defendants who were sentenced to life in prison, but with the possibility of parole after 30 years. They are almost never granted parole, he said, raising the question of whether they’re getting a fair hearing, even if they’re model prisoners.

“Older inmates are often least likely to offend,” O’Neill said. “These are people who have paid their debt to society.”

Their victims – or their victims’ families – should have a voice when parole is considered, he said, but not an “automatic veto.”

South Valley resident Louis Trujillo responded by passing around a photo of his daughter – kidnapped, raped and murdered years ago, he said.

Sen. Bill O’Neill

“To me, that happened yesterday,” Trujillo said. “There is no complete healing.”

Sandra Dietz, chairwoman of the Parole Board, said the board takes its responsibility seriously to consider the cases of 30-year lifers eligible for parole.

A broader problem, she said, is a lack of places to send inmates leaving prison. They need jobs, services and supportive places to live, Dietz said.

Depending on the circumstances, she said, the lack of options might mean the prisoner stays in custody. In others, the person is released back into his or her old life.

“We’re throwing people out now back in the same circumstances,” she said. “To me, it’s very tragic.”

A report from the state Sentencing Commission, meanwhile, estimated New Mexico’s population of female inmates will exceed prison capacity within a year, and male inmates will hit capacity in two years.