SANTA FE — At just 17 — young enough to be preparing for algebra or a high school dance — Carissa McGee went to prison.
Her 21-year sentence was longer than her life had been.
But with the help of good time and other adjustments to her sentence, she was granted parole after about nine years, coming out, she said, a far different person than she once was — a 16-year-old charged with attempted murder.
“I can look back now and say with full confidence, that is not who Carissa is today,” McGee told the Journal. “I’m not that 16-year-old who was struggling with mental health, struggling with so much immaturity, causing harm.”
McGee is now among the voices New Mexico lawmakers are hearing from as they take up a proposal to prohibit life sentences without the possibility of release or parole for serious youthful offenders — a measure that triggered some of the most emotional, intense debate of the 2022 session.
This year’s reception is proving far different so far. No one testified against the measure in its first committee hearing, and it sailed through on a 6-2 vote.
Supporters say they’ve made changes to the legislation, Senate Bill 64, intended to address the concerns of prosecutors and others. Opponents say they don’t go far enough.
In contrast to last year’s proposal, this year’s measure would outline a tiered system of timing for parole hearings — rather than setting them all at 15 years. The individuals covered by the bill are inmates serving long adult sentences for crimes committed when they were 14 to 17 years old.
Under this year’s bill, for first-degree murder, an individual would be eligible for parole 20 years into their sentence. For first-degree murder with more than one victim, it would be set at 25 years.
The 15-year proposal would remain for others.
Release wouldn’t be guaranteed, just a parole hearing.
Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, an Albuquerque Democrat and co-sponsor of the legislation, said the possibility of a second chance would provide motivation for inmates.
“It’s really important to not let them lose hope and the possibility of redemption,” she said in an interview.
The American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico estimates about 75 people would be affected by the bill, making them eligible for parole earlier than they would be otherwise. Life sentences, for example, typically included parole eligibility after 30 years.
Among those backing the bill are the New Mexico Conference of Churches and the public defenders’ office.
“This bill would bring New Mexico in line with current brain science and psychology, which recognize that youth are different from adults in important ways, including decision-making, impulsivity and response to peer pressure,” Allison Jaramillo of the Law Offices of the Public Defender told legislators last week.
For Nicole Chavez — whose son, Manzano High School student Jaydon Chavez-Silver, was shot and killed in 2015 by a 17-year-old — this year’s proposal is still a bitter pill.
“I think decreasing penalties is already a bad idea,” she said. “It’s not fair.”
Families, she said, already endure the stress of securing a conviction and a sentence. A parole hearing adds to the trauma.
“Every time you have to do that,” she said, “you’re reliving everything.”
The juvenile parole legislation cleared the Senate Health and Public Affairs Committee on a party-line vote last week, with Democrats in favor.
The two Republicans who voted in dissent didn’t offer any comments during the hearing, other than to ask a clarifying question or two.
But the proposal was intensely debated last year.
Sen. Crystal Diamond, R-Elephant Butte, noted last year that Chavez was watching from the gallery as lawmakers debated the proposal.
“This bill is a get-out-of-jail card for her son’s murderer,” Diamond said in 2022. “It rips open a wound that just won’t heal.”
Lauren Rodriguez, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Raúl Torrez, said their office is reviewing the bill and “comparing it to the previous version from last year.
“Our office is also gathering feedback and input from advocacy groups and other organizations to assess the bill’s potential impact on our communities.”
‘Regain your dignity’
McGee, now 33, doesn’t minimize what she did as a teenager.
“I was a youthful violent offender,” she said. “I committed a crime. I was deserving of some incarceration.”
Before that, she’d been a star basketball player at Mayfield High School in Las Cruces and a Gatorade Player of the Year.
But she said she struggled with mental health and isolation.
In 2006, McGee was charged after police say she stabbed her mother and older sister Marie, who tried to intervene. They were hospitalized but survived.
McGee entered a no-contest plea and was sentenced as an adult to 21 years. At 17, she joined the adult prison population alongside much older women.
“I was a child when I was incarcerated,” McGee said. “It was terrifying. I thought, ‘I’m not going to amount to anything.'”
As time passed, she enrolled in prison programs, maintained good conduct, earned good time and prepared for a parole hearing.
McGee was granted parole after about nine years and seized her second chance.
Since then, she has co-founded a nonprofit group, Women in Leadership, that helps women impacted by the criminal justice system. She coaches middle and high school basketball games, and she works for a university health initiative that helps individuals in prison.
She thinks often, she said, about the women she did time with who would be affected by the bill. Like her, she said, they deserve some hope — that “you can still regain your dignity and rise to be the best version of yourself.”
Twenty-five states — neighboring Texas among them — have already ended life without parole as a sentencing option for juveniles, according to the ACLU.
No one is currently serving such a sentence in New Mexico. But it would prohibit such a sentence in the future.
Denali Wilson, a staff attorney at the ACLU, said the measure matches New Mexico values.
“I know this is a challenging issue for lawmakers and for the community. In so many of these cases, we are talking about real life-changing harm,” she said. But “to hold out hope that a child will experience transformational change and redemption in no way diminishes our concern for the people who have experienced harm.”
This year, the bill’s next stop is the Senate Judiciary Committee. If passed there, it would also have to go through the full Senate, House committees and the full House before reaching the governor’s desk.