When should ‘lifers’ go free?

Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal

About 30 years ago, Reilly Johnson and Rick Reynolds were convicted of first-degree murder in separate crimes and were sentenced to life in prison.

The convicts spent the next three decades in prison as model inmates with no disciplinary records and similar experience attaining life skills and counseling. They also got to know each other.

But on a day in early September 2012, Reynolds was driven to his family’s farm in Portales – a free man after 31 years behind bars – scarfing down a Subway turkey breast sandwich on the way.

Reynolds released, says others should be

Johnson woke up in prison and made himself a cup of coffee, as he had for the past 11,129 days.

“Guilt’s there every morning of every day,” said Johnson, 71, who was convicted of killing his wife. “It runs in your mind at 3 a.m. when you can’t get back to sleep,” he continues in a letter from a prison near Clayton. “I beat myself up for a few years, but counseling helped with that. But it’s still there. It never really goes away.”

Due to a law passed in 1980, Johnson and Reynolds are among more than two dozen “lifers” in New Mexico who have become eligible since 2010 to make their case to the New Mexico Parole Board as to why they deserve release after 30 years in prison.

Johnson and Reynolds agreed that the parole board has a difficult task in determining the fates of the perpetrators of the so-called “worst crimes in the state,” which board members said they consider on a case-by-case basis.

This group includes those who committed so-called “crimes of passion,” as well as some of New Mexico’s most notorious convicted murderers, including a convicted cop-killer, murderer-rapist and others.

The potential release earlier this year of Joel Lee Compton, convicted of killing APD officer Gerald Cline in 1983, raised the spectre of convicts sentenced to life being released back into society. Compton was denied parole and, in fact, release of “30-year lifers” is a rarity.

Of the 24 men and one woman who have asked to be released since 2010, two have been granted parole, but one returned soon after on a minor parole violation. Another release is pending to determine where the inmate might live should his parole plan be approved.

That leaves Reynolds, 58, a master carpenter, as the only man sentenced to life in prison since 1980 who is now free.

“I was convinced I would be denied,” said Reynolds, who was convicted of killing a man he believed was having an affair with his wife. “No one else had been approved,” he said in a recent phone interview from Portales.

But within 24 hours after his Sept. 11, 2012, hearing, Reynolds was told he was approved. He spent his first night out of prison gazing at the stars in a field on his family’s Portales farm.

The board has been criticized recently by defense attorneys who say it does not give those convicted of life in prison a fair shake at their parole board hearings, subverting the 1980 state law.

Also, critics say such treatment has a negative impact on others sentenced to life, because they don’t have an example to emulate of a successfully rehabilitated fellow inmate. It also provides, they say, a costly and unnecessary burden on taxpayers.

The family of Johnson’s wife, whom he was convicted of killing on March 16, 1982, said they hope Johnson will never step foot out of prison, because he deserves to spend his life behind bars for what he did and because he poses a public safety risk.

For her part, board chairwoman Sandra Dietz said she often doesn’t know what to tell a victim’s family members who often ask her, “How many years is a life worth?”

Board members declined to elaborate on their reasoning for denying or approving any particular offender’s parole, but the board does issue a “reason for denial” form after each hearing.

On those forms, obtained through a public records request, members can check 21 boxes that give reasons for denying parole to an inmate.

In all but one denial so far, the board has checked box No. 19, which states: “Your parole at this time would depreciate the seriousness of your crime.” And in every denial, the board cited “nature and seriousness of offense” as at least one reason for keeping the inmate in prison.

Board members have also often denied release because of a perceived risk to public safety and the convict’s refusal to seek treatment for anger or drug issues.

In denying parole, the New Mexico Parole Board has offered recommendations in only two cases to prisoners about how they can improve their chances at subsequent hearings.

Offenders are encouraged to compile a parole plan before they show up for their hearing, which includes their disciplinary record, their use of in-prison programs, job training and/or religious services, and their plans for housing and employment should they be released.

But even if an offender has all of those things, Dietz stressed that there is no formula for release.

“Just because someone has a place to go doesn’t automatically mean the board will approve it,” Dietz said in a recent interview in Santa Fe. “These are the things we have to look at. We have to look at the crime.”

The Department of Corrections currently imprisons 367 inmates sentenced to life in prison since 1980.

The average age of the 25 lifers who have so far come up for parole is around 57.

Such older inmates tend to cost New Mexico taxpayers between $43,800 and $47,500 per year to keep incarcerated, which is about $10,000 more per year than for younger inmates, according to the Department of Corrections.

In addition to the taxpayer cost, older inmates are much less likely to commit new crimes when they’re released, according to a June 2012 Corrections report presented to the Legislative Finance Committee.

That report cited a 1998 study, which found that while 45 percent of offenders between 18 and 29 returned to prison within one year of release, just 3.2 percent of offenders aged 55 and older returned in the same period.

Also, the Department of Justice found in a 2007 study that those convicted of homicide and rape have very low three-year re-offense rates. Just over 1 percent of convicted murderers were arrested within three years for homicide and just over 2.5 percent of rapists were rearrested for rape, the DOJ found.

“I think the data shows that homicide offenders are generally not repeat homicide offenders,” said John Walker, a public defender who handles cases after conviction. “…You shouldn’t have the policy that any and every life sentence is not eligible for release, almost by definition.”

Dietz said that while the risk of re-offending is one of the things the board considers when deciding whether to parole an inmate, it’s by no means the only consideration.

“I don’t think the only concern is whether this person will commit a crime again,” she said.

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