This story appears in both The Paper and the Santa Fe New Mexican through a partnership to bring our readers the best in reporting from the legislature.
By Robert Nott The Santa Fe New Mexican
Carissa McGee was 16 when she stabbed her mother and sister in a high-profile attack in 2006. She served about nine years of a 21-year adult prison sentence.
The former high school basketball star said she worked to better herself while she was behind bars for one reason — “I had a light at end of the tunnel to improve my choice,” she told state lawmakers Thursday. “I had a parole date.”
McGee, who is now an advocate for prisoners and members of the LGBTQ community, provided some of the most compelling testimony in favor a contentious measure that would ban a life sentence without the possibility of parole for juveniles convicted of first-degree murder. Her victims survived multiple stab wounds in an attack she has said in news media interviews was driven by depression and her mother’s rejection of her sexual orientation after she told her family she was gay.
If her mother or sister had died, McGee might have been locked up for life.
Senate Bill 43 passed the Senate on a party-line vote earlier this week. The House Consumer and Public Affairs Committee endorsed it on a 3-2 vote Thursday, advancing it to the House Judiciary Committee.
That vote also fell along partisan lines, with the committee’s two Republicans opposing it after about two hours of debate.
Republican lawmakers, as well as district attorneys and victims advocates, have said the measure favors the interests of violent criminals rather than their victims and loved ones left behind. In an emotionally charged Senate debate Tuesday, Republicans accused Democrats of being soft on crime.
While SB 43 is making progress in the Legislature, many “tough-on-crime” bills supported by Republicans and Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham have stalled, such as measures toughening penalties and making it more difficult for defendants accused of violent crimes to be released while awaiting trial. Lujan Grisham expressed disappointment this week and said state lawmakers were doing little to get those bills passed before the session ends Thursday.
Known as the “Second Chance Bill,” SB 43 would ensure youth offenders are eligible for parole after serving 15 years of a sentence. If parole is denied, the offender would be entitled to a parole hearing every five years.
Rep. Randall Pettigrew, R-Lovington, introduced an amendment he said was the result of some behind-the-scenes negotiations, including with members of Lujan Grisham’s staff, that would have extended the 15-year parole eligibility timeline to 20 years.
But the three Democrats on the House Consumer and Public Affairs Committee voted to table Pettigrew’s amendment.
Nora Meyers Sackett, a spokeswoman for the governor, has not said whether Lujan Grisham would sign the bill if it reaches her desk.
But Sackett noted in an email Thursday the governor had tried to help create the compromise deal that failed.
“The governor brought together a variety of stakeholders, including victim advocates, the Attorney General, and state public safety leaders, to identify a workable compromise amending 15 years to 20 years,” Sackett wrote.
Thursday’s committee hearing, held virtually, was more subdued than the Senate floor debate but did include painful testimony by parents of some children killed by juveniles. They argued the bill would give criminals a second chance when their own children will never get one.
“I don’t understand how the life of a violent child offender is more important than the lives of the victims,” a woman told lawmakers. She said her children were in the Clovis library when Nathaniel Jouett opened fire there, killing two people and wounding four others. Jouett was 16 at the time of the shooting in 2017. He is serving two consecutive life sentences, 30 years each.
But a man who said he lost his parents to juvenile offenders and also has a son who is an offender voiced support for the bill.
“If we just continue to incarcerate individuals without any chance of reconstruction, retribution and growth, we are just going to be releasing damaged, broken adults into our society,” he told the committee.
Committee Chairwoman Joanne Ferrary, a Democrat from Las Cruces, made another point during the debate. She said it’s important for the state to create a law in line with a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision.
That ruling said it is unconstitutional to give juveniles under 18 a mandatory life sentence with no chance of parole because that constitutes a “cruel and unusual punishment.”