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Agreement elusive on plan to update parole rules

Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas

Attorney General Hector Balderas

SANTA FE – After vetoing a bill to change New Mexico’s probation and parole rules, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said in April that she expected prosecutors from around the state to work with bill sponsors to strike a compromise before the start of this year’s legislative session.

But despite multiple meetings and email exchanges that have yielded some common ground, no full deal has been struck on the issue with less than one week before the 30-day session gets underway.

Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, one of the sponsors of last year’s bipartisan bill, said he plans to file a revamped proposal next week that will address some of prosecutors’ concerns.

“We may not have unity on all the issues,” Maestas said. “There are those who don’t understand the policy or agree with the policy.”

But he also said he believes the bill will pass during the session, predicting it would be “relatively uneventful” after last year’s fireworks.

The bill, which has not yet been filed, would eliminate parole costs, update the legal definition of “absconding” and would not alter state law regarding the possibility of parole after 30 years for most first-degree murders, Maestas said.

However, 12th Judicial District Attorney John Sugg, whose office covers Otero and Lincoln counties, said prosecutors have been unable to reach full agreement on the bill with Maestas and other bill sponsors because of what he claimed was a “moving target” regarding the bill’s objectives.

“We’ve compromised as much as we can, but we’re not willing to compromise on public safety and victims’ rights,” Sugg told the Journal.

He also said the district attorneys, along with Attorney General Hector Balderas, planned to send Lujan Grisham a compromise proposal outlining their suggestions.

Specifically, Sugg said, they would like to require victim restitution – or at least incentivize it – to complete probation, and they want to ensure that parole officers are authorized to make arrests in certain situations, such as when an individual convicted of DWI shows up drunk for a parole meeting.

Last year’s plan was crafted in response to the Legislative Finance Committee’s findings that New Mexico’s recidivism rate is increasing, hitting 50% in 2018, as states across the country are reporting a downward trend.

Parole revocations for technical violations related to drug use made up half the recidivism rate, and 67% of parolees violate conditions at least once, according to the LFC report.

But the district attorneys and the Attorney General’s Office lobbied Lujan Grisham to veto last year’s bill, arguing it would have made it easier for New Mexico inmates serving life sentences to end up back on the streets.

Balderas, a Democrat, recently indicated he still has concerns.

“New Mexico’s safety is at risk when we prioritize probation and parole reform ahead of strengthening victim services, and mental health and drug treatment services,” he said in a statement. “We will continue to work with all stakeholders to appropriately balance these concerns.”

Meanwhile, Lujan Grisham spokesman Tripp Stelnicki said Wednesday that the Governor’s Office is hoping to avoid a repeat of last year.

“We’re monitoring the conversations between those two entities and we’re hopeful they can come to some kind of agreement because criminal justice reform is very important,” Stelnicki told the Journal.

He also said “the door is open” for a bill to move forward during this year’s session.

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