Over the weekend, New Mexico abolished life without parole prison sentences for juveniles, affirming that people who make even the most serious mistakes as teenagers should have a second chance. The new law, signed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, also requires that current prisoners serving decades behind bars for crimes they committed as minors get a parole hearing.
ProPublica reported earlier this month that the New Mexico Corrections Department had lost track of at least 21 “juvenile lifers,” apparently unaware of who the eligible prisoners are, where they are and how they will be identified for the parole hearings that they now, under the law, deserve.
In a statement Monday in response to ProPublica’s reporting, Grisham’s office said that the corrections agency, which answers to the governor, is working to screen all prisoners in its custody who are serving life sentences, in order to compile a list of those newly eligible for parole.
The effort to find them may require the department to go back through the individual court records of prisoners who entered NMCD custody at or around 18 years old — including some who are now being held in out-of-state facilities — to see if their crime was committed before that age. It also will mean working with the ACLU of New Mexico, which has led the effort to identify these individuals.
The New Mexico law is premised on multiple recent Supreme Court decisions and studies of brain science that have found that kids are impulsive, prone to risk-taking, bad at understanding the consequences of their actions and highly susceptible to peer pressure (often committing their offenses among groups of friends), all of which make them less culpable than adults when they commit crimes. They are also, according to the high court, more capable of redemption.
The brain doesn’t fully develop until around age 25, extensive research shows, and most people are likely to “age out” of criminality.
The law doesn’t guarantee freedom to juvenile lifers in the state, but it will provide them a chance to articulate to the parole board how they have changed, including whether they’ve taken accountability for their actions, followed prison rules and completed educational programming. (Prisoners who have already served 15 years in prison for crimes committed as minors, or 20 to 25 years in the case of some more severe crimes, will also now be eligible for parole.)
The corrections department has until June, after which the law goes into effect, to identify all of the prisoners affected.
“I want to be productive. I want to do something good instead of bad,” said Jerry Torres, one of the lost juvenile lifers found by ProPublica in an out-of-state prison in Arizona.
If identified by New Mexico prison officials, Torres could get a chance at freedom that he never expected. “It’s as simple as that,” he said.