House Committee Hears Probation & Parole Reform Bill

Chief Public Defender Ben Baur

The New Mexican

Lawmakers continued to tussle Friday over a bill aimed at saving the state $40 million a year by reducing the number of parolees who are re-incarcerated over technical violations such as testing positive for drugs or missing appointments with their probation officers.

House Bill 263 is a much tinkered with version of a bill that passed both houses with bipartisan support last year, but was vetoed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham at the behest of Attorney General Hector Balderas and the state’s district attorneys, who said they hadn’t gotten a chance to provide input.

After several hours of discussion, the House Judiciary Committee decided to postpone voting on Friday to give Antonio “Moe” Maestas, an Albuquerque Democrat and one of the bill’s co-sponsors, time to make revisions. The committee is expected to vote on the bill at 9 a.m. today.

Parolees and probationers who violate the terms of their release make up one-third of all prison admissions, committee Chairwoman Gail Chasey, D-Albuquerque — another of the bill’s co-sponsors — said during Friday’s hearing. And half of those who are returned to prison for violating parole were re-incarcerated because of a technical violation.

When she vetoed the bill in 2019, Lujan Grisham said she would bring it back this year. And she has, but some lawmakers grumbled Friday that she directed them to reconsider a scaled-back version — last year’s bill with 12 amendments made by the state’s prosecutors — instead of a new version they said included input from more stakeholders.

The new version contains so many changes that allow re-incarceration, some said, it won’t accomplish the savings and increased community welfare originally intended.

Governor’s spokesman Tripp Stelnicki said Friday there was no edict from on high about which version of the bill lawmakers could consider.

“I find myself with a watered-down version of last year,” Rep. Eliseo Lee Alcon, D-Milan, said. “Sometimes we have to lay down and give the ranch away in order to sell a single cow. … I’m still not really happy with what the end result is, but I can understand why it is there.”

Maestas said the bill will give probation officers more tools to help parolees integrate into the community by giving them a graduated series of sanctions. That is a change from the status quo, which he said forces them to chose between giving violators a verbal warning or sending them back to prison.

Chasey and Chief Public Defender Ben Baur said it’s important that the bill’s definition of “absconder” make a distinction between someone willfully missing a meeting with a probation officer and missing one because of uncontrollable circumstance such as car trouble or lack of child care.

Without that clarity, Baur said, the bill hardly qualifies as reform. Chasey said if the definition is not re-cast to her satisfaction, she’ll withdraw her support for the bill.

Other lawmakers, including Rep. Greg Nibert, R-Roswell, questioned whether the bill strikes the right balance between fiscal responsibility and protecting the public safety.

Several community members commented on the importance of recognizing drug addiction as a public health issue and treating former inmates more humanely.