New Mexico court reiterates need for sentencing reform in granting parole to juvenile lifer 

By Steve Jansen

ALBUQUERQUE — Michael Brown, one of dozens of juvenile lifers in New Mexico and the subject of a recent Youth Today profile, will be eligible for parole in February 2024 following a New Mexico district court decision. 

Brown, who was expected to spend the rest of his life behind bars, had been serving one of the state’s longest sentences for a crime committed as a child due to his involvement in the 1994 murders of his grandparents.

“It still seems very surreal. Every once in a while, it hits me that I’m actually going to see the parole board in a couple years,” said the 44-year-old Brown in a phone interview from the Northeast New Mexico Detention Facility in Clayton. “I always felt like I was going to die in here, and now to have [an opportunity for parole] is really sobering to me in all of the best ways.”

Brown, who has been incarcerated since he was 16 years old, had been sentenced to life plus 41 and a half years for two counts of first-degree murder as well as tampering with evidence and the unlawful taking of a motor vehicle. In November, judge Christopher Perez of the 13th Judicial District Court restructured the sentence to provide for earlier parole eligibility, ruling in a habeas corpus petition that Brown’s sentence is unconstitutional and violates the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Perez declined to reduce Brown’s sentence to less than life, which, under New Mexico law, is 30 years. Brown, who has served 27 years, won’t appeal the judge’s decision related to the life sentence.

“[Brown] is focused on what he can do for himself and for his family to prepare for this hearing,” said Denali Wilson, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of New Mexico who is representing Brown. “In just over two years from now, he will have the chance to come home.”

In the habeas ruling declining to reduce Brown’s sentence, the court placed the onus on state lawmakers to craft statutory updates to sentencing practices for juvenile offenders convicted of serious crimes such as murder.

“Reviewing juvenile sentencing procedures for consistency with our society’s evolving standards of decency is a laudable endeavor. However, as in this case, such matters of public policy are best addressed by the Legislature,” the court wrote, citing the August 2, 2021 New Mexico Supreme Court ruling in State of New Mexico v. Nicholas Ortiz that upheld the state’s sentencing procedure that subjects serious youthful offenders to adult sentences.

According to Wilson, judgments in State v. Ira and Ira v. Janecka, as well as United States Supreme Court cases Montgomery v. Louisiana and Jones v. Mississippi, have also underscored the need for state legislative action to address sentencing youth to de facto life sentences.

“Almost 20 years ago now, retired Justice Richard Bosson asked the Legislature to look at the policy issues behind extreme adult sentences imposed on children,” Wilson said. “Since then, the U.S. Supreme Court has chimed in, on several occasions now, and our own New Mexico Supreme Court, too, each time emphasizing the power of the Legislature to resolve this issue.”

Twenty-five states and the District of Columbia have passed a version of “second chance” legislation introducing parole eligibility earlier for juvenile offenders. A similar proposal in New Mexico failed during the 2021 legislative session. 

Supporters of that proposal could get another chance next year: During a Nov. 10 Courts, Corrections, and Justice Committee hearing, state lawmakers, ahead of the 2022 New Mexico Legislature, endorsed juvenile sentencing reforms

According to the ACLU of New Mexico, the bill, which has been submitted to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham for the upcoming session scheduled for Jan. 18-Feb. 17, would abolish juvenile life without parole and establish parole eligibility after 15 years for youth who were sentenced as adults. The legislation is co-sponsored by Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez (D-Bernalillo), Rep. Gail Chasey (D-Bernalillo), and Rep. Dayan Hochman-Vigil (D-Bernalillo).

“You can’t just throw a child away because they made a mistake,” said Brown. “There are so many guys in here, a good portion that were juveniles who were sentenced as adults, that are worthy of that second chance.”

This story originally published Dec. 22, 2021, on Youth Today.

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