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Gov: Petition to release more inmates lacks legal authority

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s office says a state Supreme Court petition filed by advocates and defense attorneys seeking to release several more prison inmates lacks any legal authority and should be denied.

Last week the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, the Law Offices of the Public Defender and the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association filed an emergency petition asking the Supreme Court to order the state to release inmates who meet certain criteria to help prevent the spread of coronavirus.

The petition was filed against Lujan Grisham, Corrections Secretary Alisha Tafoya Lucero and Probation and Parole Director Melanie Martinez. Oral arguments are scheduled take place May 4.

“Petitioners requests are without legal foundation,” Matthew Garcia, chief general counsel to Lujan Grisham, wrote in his response to the petition Thursday. “The Petition fails to identify a nondiscretionary legal duty on the part of the Governor obligating her to perform any of the actions set out in the requested relief, and the Petition is absent of any allegation or supporting legal analysis proving that the Governor has violated constitutional prohibitions on cruel and unusual punishment.”

The state Attorney General’s Office and the New Mexico District Attorney’s Association, both listed as interested parties in the petition, have also filed similar responses asking the court to deny the petition.

The petition asks for the release of inmates who are serving sentences for probation and parole revocation or for nonviolent crimes, as well as inmates who are pregnant, over 60 or at risk of serious illness due to COVID-19. It also asks that the state stop making arrests for technical parole violations.

The petition contends that failing to reduce the prison population violates inmates’ constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment and “atypical and significant hardship.”

Under the governor’s emergency health order implemented last month, the state started releasing inmates who are within 30 days of release, not serving time for felony drunk driving, domestic abuse or assault on a peace officer and are not sex offenders.

As of Thursday, the state has released 23 inmates, according to Garcia’s filing, and about one to three inmates are expected to be released each day.

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