March 31, 2017 - The New Mexico Parole Board has released just 7 percent of prison inmates sentenced to 30 years to life for capital crimes. That’s an alarmingly low rate compared to other states, and it seems to buck a state law passed in 1980 that says inmates are entitled to a fair hearing every two years after they’ve served three decades behind bars.
Our state’s “30-year lifers” include multiple murderers and people who were sentenced for killing police officers; some of them have lengthy disciplinary records in prison, too. But others had clean records before the day they killed someone, and they’ve spent their time doing exactly what the criminal justice system expects of inmates: bettering themselves. The 30-year lifer population now numbers more than 400 and has increased 15 percent since 2013.
The inmates are aging, which, studies show, means they are less likely to commit new crimes if they’re released and more likely to cost the state increasingly more money to incarcerate. But Sandy Dietz, chairwoman of the Parole Board, has amassed near-complete, unchecked power in deciding on freedom for this growing number of inmates in New Mexico.
State Sen. Bill O’Neill, D-Albuquerque, sponsored a bill in the Legislature that would’ve shifted the burden for a successful parole hearing from the inmates to the board — largely to rein in Dietz’ power. It died in committee. Rep. Bill Rehm, an Albuquerque Republican and retired Bernalillo County Sheriff’s captain, voted against the measure. This week, correspondent Jeff Proctor waded into the complex public safety, legal, moral and financial arguments surrounding the issue of the 30-year lifers with O’Neill and Rehm.
The Santa Fe Reporter and New Mexico In Depth: Throwing Away the Key: New Mexico’s ’30-year lifers’ denied a fair shot at parole
The Sentencing Project: Delaying a Second Chance: The declining prospects for parole on life sentences