New Mexico Reformers Lose Bid to End Juvenile Life Sentences

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Photo courtesy Campaign For Youth Justice

The failure of a New Mexico bill that would have prohibited life sentences and mandated earlier probation eligibility for juveniles has exposed deep rifts between those seeking judicial reform and victim advocates in the state.

State Senate Bill 247, co-sponsored this year by State Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez and State Rep. Dayan Hochman-Vigil, both Democrats, would have banned life-without-parole (LWOP) sentences for juveniles and made them automatically eligible for parole after 15 years.

SB247 passed 28-11 in the state Senate but languished and died without a vote in the House.

The bill’s death leaves intact harsh sentencing, and sends a message to children that “it doesn’t matter the kind of person that you become or the ways that you commit yourself to repairing the harm that you caused … [W]e don’t care,” said Denali Wilson, an American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico attorney, and a founder of the New Mexico Coalition for the Fair Sentencing of Youth.

Seventy-five New Mexicans are currently serving sentences longer than 15 years for crimes they committed before they were 18, according to the Coalition.

Legal challenges have argued that such lengthy sentences handed down to young people amount to de facto life-without-parole terms.

At least 25 states and the District of Columbia have passed “Second Chance” legislation intended to curb harsh sentencing for juveniles.

During the legislative session, The National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Murderers (NOVJM) circulated a petition against the bill that included graphic descriptions of violent crimes committed by juveniles.

NOVJM argued the law would “deny justice” by diminishing the seriousness of violent crime and re-traumatize victims who participate in parole hearings.

NOVJM President Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins said she founded the organization after her sister and brother-in-law, along with their baby, were murdered by someone under the age of 18.

She worries legislative adjustments to youth sentencing could further ostracize victims and their families, who she said face emotional turmoil and unique challenges in legal proceedings due to the defendants’ age.

“Our purpose is to support and inform and advocate for the rights of the victims’ families,” Bishop-Jenkins said. “We’re not an organization built around [keeping juvenile offenders] in prison forever.”

Wilson said the New Mexico Coalition for the Fair Sentencing of Youth will continue to press lawmakers.

“We’re now behind half the country on this issue,” said Wilson. “It should’ve happened yesterday and it didn’t, so it needs to happen tomorrow.”

Editor’s Note: The legal climate for LWOP for juveniles has gotten cloudier this year, thanks to a Supreme Court ruling that judges do not need to make a factual finding of “permanent incorrigibility” when deciding to sentence a juvenile offender to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The ruling, in Jones v. Mississippi is an “alarming” step back in protecting juveniles, Arthur Ago and Rochelle Swartz of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law wrote in a recent essay for BloombergLaw. Read more here.

 This story is reproduced with the permission of Youth Today. An earlier version is available here. Steve Jansen is New Mexico Child Welfare Reporter for the Center for Sustainable Journalism.

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