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Gov. orders early release of some inmates

Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham provides an update about COVID-19 in New Mexico from the Roundhouse on Monday. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham issued an executive order Monday releasing some inmates from prison as a way to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Only those who were scheduled to be released in the next 30 days are eligible; however the list will be revised each day, according to a spokesman for the Corrections Department.

“The early release of incarcerated individuals who are near their release date and meet certain criteria will help to protect public health without a concomitant risk to public safety,” the order states. “This measure will serve to protect the health of those individuals, of staff and inmates at all state correctional facilities, and of all New Mexicans.”

A spokesman for the governor said the first group, made up of 10 to 12 inmates, will be released Tuesday.

However advocates for inmates say the order doesn’t go far enough.

Attorney Matt Coyte, the past president of the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, said the executive order is a “tiny step in the right direction.” He said he thinks it would be better to start releasing people who are set to be let out of prison in the next six months rather than in the next 30 days.

“This, although the right idea, won’t actually achieve anything because the numbers involved are so small,” Coyte said.

Chief Public Defender Bennett Baur, of the Law Offices of the Public Defender, agreed.

“This is a good start, but this is a limited group of people,” Baur wrote in a statement. “We already are incarcerating people who don’t need to be held to protect public safety, especially during this health emergency.”

The executive order essentially commutes an inmate’s sentence, placing him or her on parole instead.

Those who are eligible include:

• Inmates who are scheduled to be released in the next 30 days who already have a parole plan in place

• Inmates who are not serving a sentence for driving while intoxicated, domestic abuse or assault on a peace officer

• Inmates who are not sex offenders

• Inmates who are not serving an enhanced sentence for use of a firearm

“The commutation of sentence under this order does not remove the fact of conviction or any collateral consequences of conviction, including but not limited to habitual offender status or any other offender status under state or federal law and length of parole term,” the order states.

The order instructs the secretary of the Corrections Department to provide the list of eligible inmates to the Governor’s Office and the Office of the Secretary of State.

The order does not apply to county jails, over which the state has no jurisdiction.

However, after working with attorneys and judges last week, the Metropolitan Detention Center began releasing several nonviolent, medically vulnerable inmates.

Neither 2nd Judicial District Attorney Raúl Torrez nor 5th Judicial District Attorney Dianna Luce, the president of the New Mexico District Attorney Association objected to inmates being released early.

Torrez’s spokesman wrote in a statement that the 2nd Judicial District Attorney is concerned about coronavirus in the prison system as well.

“We do not wish to jeopardize the health of inmates, criminal justice stakeholders and the community,” spokesman Michael Patrick wrote. “We are also concerned that a major outbreak would limit our ability to safely detain the most violent and dangerous offenders during this public health emergency.”

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