New Mexico May End Life Without Parole Sentences For Children ... If They Can Find Them

Criminal Justice System
New Mexico May End Life Without Parole Sentences For Children ... If They Can Find Them
File:NM State Pen Unit 4.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

New Mexico, as we have previously reported, is on the verge of ending life without parole sentences for juvenile offenders. This is a wonderful thing! So far, this utterly bizarre and inhumane practice has been abolished in 33 other states, but we've got a long way to go before it's eradicated entirely.

The new law will make it so those who were convicted of crimes as juveniles and sentenced to life without parole or otherwise extremely long sentences will be able apply for parole after at least 15 to 25 years depending on the crime.

As I wrote in January, this is a very big deal because:

New Mexico currently has one of the highest rates of juvenile incarceration in the nation, with 227 per 100,000 children in prison at any given time. For comparison, the United States as a whole had a juvenile incarceration rate of 114 per 100,000 children in 2019, and that is the highest youth incarceration rate of any country in the entire world. Throughout the US, 1,465 people are currently serving life without parole for juvenile offenses, which is actually a 44 percent drop since 2012.

But there's a catch!

A ProPublica investigation has revealed that the New Mexico Department of Corrections may not actually have records for all of those serving time in prison for crimes they committed as juveniles. Many have been sent to serve their time in other states, while others have just been forgotten by the system.

The New Mexico Corrections Department has lost track of nearly two dozen prisoners in its custody who are serving life sentences for crimes they committed as children, an error that could keep these “juvenile lifers” from getting a chance at freedom under a bill likely to be passed by the state Legislature within days.

As the legislation was being drafted, ProPublica asked the department for a list of all state prisoners who were sentenced to life as juveniles. Using court records, the news organization then identified at least 21 such individuals not on the state’s list. Many of them had been locked up for decades.

They're not the only ones. ACLU of New Mexico attorney Denali Wilson has been working with those incarcerated as juveniles for years and still regularly discovers people she never heard of before and who were not included in the lists the state gave her.

Carmelina Hart, spokesperson for the corrections department, initially sent ProPublica the names of 13 people in New Mexico’s prison system who were sentenced to life as children, which she said was the extent of the cohort. [...]

Asked for the names of all prisoners who would be affected by the bill, Hart said that only the state court system could provide such a list.

That caught Barry Massey, spokesperson for the New Mexico administrative office of the courts, off guard. “I am surprised that the Corrections Department claims it has no such records, given that the agency has to know the sentences imposed on someone in order to track their incarceration,” he said.

Massey said the courts do not maintain a database of individuals in prison, nor any records his team is capable of searching by prisoners’ ages at the time of their offenses. “Only the Corrections Department would have that,” he said.

Oh boy. How does that even happen? Is it that when they lock people up and throw away the key they also throw away their paperwork?

I would be more shocked if I wasn't aware of the fact that, often, people who are supposed to be paroled end up being kept in prison for far longer than they are meant to be because someone screwed up their paperwork.

A 2020 study determined that since 2013, at least 40 prisoners in South Carolina were incarcerated longer than they should have been, because of paperwork issues — including one who was there for 2 1/2 years longer than they were meant to. Then there was that one time Texas just kept a mentally disabled man in prison for 35 years without a trial because everyone thought someone else was taking care of it. Texas, actually, loses track of people being held in pretrial detention rather frequently, completely forgetting to get them trials or let them see a public defender.

Louisiana spends $2.8 million a year on incarcerating people after their release dates just because they like to take their sweet ass time processing said releases. In New Mexico, a man named Stephen Slevin, who was incarcerated for drunk driving, was kept in solitary confinement for 2 1/2 years because people kinda just forgot he was there.

You'd think, given how fond the United States is of incarceration, that those in charge of it would have gotten really good at it by now. You would be wrong. So, so wrong.

Oh, and if you happen to not be too bothered by people staying in prison for longer than they were meant to, you may want to consider that it happens the other way, as well.

It's a good thing that New Mexico is getting ready to stop sentencing children to life without parole, because clearly these people do not have their shit together enough to handle this level of responsibility.

Thankfully, Wilson says that even when she finds people the state missed, they know about the legislation and they know about the work she is doing with the ACLU, so she is confident that they will be found. Eventually.

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Robyn Pennacchia

Robyn Pennacchia is a brilliant, fabulously talented and visually stunning angel of a human being, who shrugged off what she is pretty sure would have been a Tony Award-winning career in musical theater in order to write about stuff on the internet. Follow her on Twitter at @RobynElyse


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