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Lawmakers defend parole bill, dismiss DAs’ safety concerns

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

Two state lawmakers are firing back after district attorneys across the state and the attorney general urged the governor to veto a bill that changes the rules of probation and parole.

Rep. Antonio "Moe" Maestas

Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas

Reps. Antonio “Moe” Maestas and Gail Chasey, Albuquerque Democrats who sponsored the legislation, sent a letter to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Thursday defending House Bill 564. Two weeks ago, 12th Judicial District Attorney John Sugg wrote a letter, backed by DAs statewide and the AG, to Grisham calling the bill “a public safety risk” and asking her to veto it.

Rep. Gail Chasey

Rep. Gail Chasey

Maestas, chair of the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee, and Chasey, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, argue that HB 564 would “modernize” the way probation and parole operates and that it would reduce increasing recidivism in New Mexico. They also address the concerns voiced in the DAs’ letter.

“Probation systems when done well can be the most effective way of reducing recidivism. State after state has proven this,” the letter from Maestas and Chasey states. “We must not let a small town prosecutor continue to strangle progressive criminal justice reforms that work.”

Sugg and the District Attorneys’ Association are standing their ground.

“No matter how hard these sponsors try to spin their legislation, the fact remains that this bill will put New Mexicans in danger. …” Sugg said Thursday.

The bill passed the House 51-16 and the Senate 26-6 and now awaits Lujan Grisham’s decision. She has until April 5 to sign it.

Maestas and Chasey said the bill was crafted in response to the Legislative Finance Committee’s findings that New Mexico’s recidivism rate is increasing, hitting 50 percent in 2018, as states across the country are seeing a downward trend.

Currently, 7,300 inmates are in prison and 19,000 offenders are on probation and parole. The letter from Maestas and Chasey states that HB 564 would fight rising recidivism by “getting a better handle on prison admissions caused by revocations from supervision, particularly for less serious, so-called technical violations.” Specifically, Maestas and Chasey say, HB 564 would allow for a probation officer to sanction someone on probation to local jail for 90 days after a technical violation rather than revoke them to prison, where the average stay for revocations is 11 months.

According to the LFC report, parole revocations for technical violations related to drug use made up half the recidivism rate and 67 percent of parolees violate conditions at least once, 75 percent of which are for failed drug tests and missed appointments.

“Everyone misses appointments,” the letter states. “Probationers should not return to prison for a missed appointment or one failed drug test.”

In total, 43 percent of parolees are revoked and sent back to prison after an average of 2.7 violations over 372 days, according to the LFC.

The letter argues that the bill also incentivizes good behavior.

Under the bill, after one year of supervised probation the probationer would have a month of unsupervised probation credited to their sentence for every month served without a violation.

That means someone sentenced to three years of supervised probation could serve only two years if they don’t violate.

One of the biggest issues the DA Association has with the bill is its handling of parole for someone sentenced to life in prison.

As it stands, a parole board is now required to look at specific factors when deciding to release anyone who has served 30 years of their sentence. These include the severity of the crime, whether a deadly weapon was used and if the inmate is a habitual offender.

But those mitigating factors are stricken from the language of the bill, which would instead ask the board to “consider all pertinent information,” effectively leaving it up to the parole board to decide which factors are pertinent.

The DA Association said that without considering those factors a parole board could release some of New Mexico’s most violent criminals.

Calling it the “least credible, fear-mongering claim,” the sponsors’ letter argues that the factors are removed “in favor of modern statutory construction.”

“The broader criterion of considering ‘all pertinent information concerning the inmate,’ is not ambiguous at all and does not prohibit the Parole board from considering those very same factors – and more,” Maestas and Chasey said.

The letter states that the DA Association had “every opportunity” to work with the Legislature on “any aspect” of the bill and attended three hearings, but chose to speak during only one.

Sugg said the DA Association has followed, and opposed, the bill from the beginning.

“This is not fear-mongering, but legitimate concerns from the people who will have to deal with the fallout from this legislation,” he said. “We have come together with Attorney General Balderas to oppose this bill because it will hurt New Mexicans.”

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