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NM Juvenile Justice Advocates Press Governor for Action


Monday, January 17, 2022   

New Mexico's 30 day legislative session, held in even-numbered years, typically focuses on budget issues, but juvenile justice advocates are hopeful the governor will prioritize a bill that failed to pass last year.

The bill would have banned life-without-parole sentences for juveniles, and would make them automatically eligible for parole after 15 years.

American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico Staff Attorney Denali Wilson said she believes the legislation would balance the needs to protect public safety, respect the rights of victims and also address harsh sentencing.

"And, the need to treat children, who we know possess unique capacity to grow and change, to treat them differently than we treat adults who commit similar crimes," said Wilson.

According to Wilson, increased parole options for young people who commit crimes creates incentive for good behavior and participation in rehabilitation programs.

She said she hopes New Mexico will join the movement in 25 states that have already abolished juvenile life-without-parole sentences.

But some opponents of so-called "second chance" bills would like to see New Mexico remain an outlier in the movement.

Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins founded the National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Murderers after her family members were killed by a person under age 18, and is its president. Her group argued against the bill in last year's session.

"We're not 'fry 'em all, lock 'em up' type people," said Bishop-Jenkins. "That's not what's going on here. We want individual victims' families to be able to speak out to what they think is appropriate in their case. And we want the judicial system to determine fair penalties."

At the ACLU, Wilson said she has clients sentenced for crimes at age 16 and still in prison, nearly 40 years later.

She said that costs taxpayers a lot of money. She noted a recent case that took two years and involved two district attorneys, two defense attorneys and significant judicial resources.

"Everybody in the room agreed the sentence was unconstitutional and needed to be fixed," said Wilson. "And this kind of litigation will continue unless and until the legislature acts."

Wilson says 75 people fall under the provisions of the "second chance" bill in New Mexico.

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