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Editorial: Level the parole playing field for qualified ‘lifers’

An inmate sentenced to life in prison most likely will draw his or her last breath in the custody of the New Mexico Corrections Department.

But not always.

There are 367 people now in New Mexico prisons who received a life sentence since 1980, the year a law was passed that allows “lifers” to apply for parole after serving 30 years.

Since 2010 – when an inmate sentenced to life in 1980 had served 30 years – 24 men and one woman have asked for release. Only two were granted parole – one, Rick Reynolds of Portales, remains free and the other was returned to prison on a minor parole violation. Another release is pending.

Point is, it’s not easy for a lifer to get out of prison.

It’s up to the New Mexico Parole Board, after giving the inmate a chance to make his or her case and hearing from others either in support or against the release, to decide if the person goes free. It’s case-by-case, and the nature of the crime is a consideration. Those who get life have committed some of the worst crimes on the books, so it’s a serious decision.

The average age of the lifers who have come up for parole is 57. Not only do such older inmates cost more to house than their younger counterparts, they are less likely to commit new crimes after release. A 1998 study found that 45 percent of offenders 18-29 returned to prison one year after release, but just 3.2 percent of offenders 55 and older returned in the same period.

There should be a process that imposes measurable criteria so inmates with similar histories of model behavior get the same shot at freedom. In Reynolds’ case, he got the rare thumbs up. Fellow “lifer” Reilly Johnson got the thumbs down. Both were convicted of first-degree murder in separate crimes.

But the human component should not be removed. There are people serving life sentences who absolutely should never be paroled.

For families of victims, one factor to understand is that “life” doesn’t always mean “until dead.”

For those who earn it, parole could be another chance at life – and to make up for crimes of the past.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.