New Mexico Bill Would End Life Without Parole For Children, Which Is Somehow A Thing

Criminal Justice System
New Mexico Bill Would End Life Without Parole For Children, Which Is Somehow A Thing
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Democratic New Mexico legislators are looking to pass a bill that would bar sentencing children to life without parole and which would allow offenders under the age of 18, in most cases, to be eligible for parole after 15 years.

A similar bill was introduced last year and then dropped for a variety of reasons, including opposition from prosecutors, Republican legislators, Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and "some victims of violent crimes who raised concerns that the people who harmed them would be prematurely released." It was pulled from consideration four days after being introduced, when a Republican proposed an amendment that would have allowed for life without parole to still be achieved by way of "stacked" sentences. Such an amendment, the bill's sponsors concluded, would have obviously undermined the entire purpose of the legislation.

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.

New Mexico also has one of the highest incarceration rates not only in the United States but in the developed world, with 733 people per 100,000 being incarcerated in the state (the national rate is 664, which is also not great). This bill could significantly cut into that rate, because people wouldn't be serving life sentences for things they did as children.

Source: Prison Policy

Senate Bill 64, known as the Second Chance Bill, is the result of a compromise reached between Democratic state Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez and the bill's other sponsors, as well as the District Attorney's Association. Since last year, it has been amended in a way that has appeased some of the groups who initially opposed it. While most children given life sentences would be made eligible for parole after 15 years, those convicted of "willful, deliberate first-degree murder" would have to wait 20 years to see a parole board, and those convicted of the first degree murder of multiple people would have to wait 25 years. It seems worth mentioning here that the longest possible prison sentence for anyone in Norway is 21 years, with the possibility of parole starting at 14 years.

It is not clear what crimes children are being sentenced to longer than 15 years for in the first place, if not murder.

The bill has attracted the support of anti-death penalty advocate Sister Helen Prejean, who wrote an op-ed praising the measure in the Santa Fe New Mexican:

Life without parole is, as Pope Francis recently called it, a “hidden death penalty.” By allowing New Mexico’s children to be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole and equivalent sentences, we are literally condemning them to die in prison. We ignore the potential for growth and change that every young person possesses. We say to our children: “It does not matter the ways in which you commit yourself to rehabilitation, healing and accounting for the harm that you caused. Nothing you do matters. You will never be welcomed back. There is no mercy and no hope for you.” [...]

When a child causes harm, we must join with our communities in mourning alongside those harmed. But we must not forget that within a hurt child is an invitation for redemption. The ultimate practice of justice is to heal those who cause harm, not to harm them further.

Boy, that sure would be nice.

If this legislation passes, New Mexico will become the 26th state (plus the District of Columbia) to ban life without parole sentences for children.

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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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