Democratic lawmakers renew push for parole changes

New Mexico

In this photo taken Monday, July 8, 2019, New Mexico Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas speaks to reporters following a legislative hearing in Santa Fe, N.M. Maestas, D-Albuquerque, is among lawmakers pushing for changes to New Mexico’s parole system. (AP Photo/Mary Hudetz)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Lawmakers renewed their push Tuesday to reform New Mexico’s parole system, saying it’s beset by costly flaws that have denied inmates a chance at successfully integrating back into society.

A legislative committee held a daylong hearing in Santa Fe that included testimony from corrections officials, representatives of the New Mexico District Attorneys Association, defense attorneys and Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, an attorney and Democrat from Albuquerque.

Maestas was the primary sponsor of a bill that won legislative approval earlier this year but was vetoed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat. It would have required officials to provide a written explanation when deciding whether or not to release inmates, including those who become eligible for parole after spending 30 years in prison.

The bill is expected to again go before lawmakers in the next legislative session after district attorneys across the state and Attorney General Hector Balderas expressed concerns about it in letters to governor, urging her to an issue a veto.

The letters were sent after lawmakers approved the bill. Its reintroduction is expected to give prosecutors a second chance to debate the measure and suggest amendments earlier in the legislative process.

“We have the opportunities to make tremendous leaps into the future. But some of those leaps are difficult for our colleagues to grasp,” Maestas said early in the hearing.

He said his bill had been mischaracterized the first time around when prosecutors argued it would limit the parole board’s say in deciding whether to release inmates, including those with violent criminal histories.

Maestas also read from a letter the attorney general sent to the governor in March that argued the legislation could effectively limit the sentence of life without possibility of parole, leading others to question whether the state’s top prosecutor had been misinformed about the bill.

A request for comment from a spokesman for the attorney general was not immediately returned.

John Suggs, a district attorney for Lincoln and Otero counties, said he did not imply in his own communication about the bill that it would impact the sentences for people serving life without the possibility of parole — the most severe criminal penalty in New Mexico.

Suggs said there were concerns that the sponsors’ intention for changing the language surrounding parole laws was aimed simply at releasing more inmates.

“The parole board can consider parole. But there’s no obligation to offer parole,” he said in explaining the system.

The governor told lawmakers in her veto message that the bill was built upon “sound policy.” But she vetoed the measure because all stakeholders needed to participate in the conversation about the bill, she said.

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