This story was originally published by ProPublica. ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for Dispatches, a newsletter that spotlights wrongdoing around the country, to receive our stories in your inbox every week.
The New Mexico Corrections Department has lost track of nearly two dozen prisoners in its custody who are serving life sentences for crimes they committed as children, an error that could keep these “juvenile lifers” from getting a chance at freedom under a bill likely to be passed by the state Legislature within days.
As the legislation was being drafted, ProPublica asked the department for a list of all state prisoners who were sentenced to life as juveniles. Using court records, the news organization then identified at least 21 such individuals not on the state’s list. Many of them had been locked up for decades.
Denali Wilson, a staff attorney at the ACLU of New Mexico who helped discover the problem, said such carelessness on the part of the state government makes it plain that “when you throw away kids in adult prison, they are lost.”
Or as one of the forgotten prisoners, Sigmundr Odhinnson, told ProPublica in an email from behind bars, “We are, quite literally, missing children.”
This is not just a philosophical issue. The New Mexico Legislature is on the cusp of passing a bill that would give a new shot at parole to all state prisoners serving life or lengthy sentences for crimes they committed when they were juveniles, provided that they have served at least 15 to 25 years of their time, depending on their offense.
But to do that, the corrections department will first need to identify all of these individuals to help schedule their parole hearings.
“When the entity that is imprisoning people isn’t a reliable source for who it is imprisoning, how do we know the people exist?” said Wilson.
The New Mexico legislation is premised on multiple recent Supreme Court decisions and studies of brain science finding 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 bill wouldn’t guarantee freedom to juvenile lifers in New Mexico, but it would provide them a chance to articulate to the state parole board how they have changed, including whether they’ve taken accountability for their actions, followed prison rules and completed educational programming.
Prosecutors opposed the legislation in previous years but dropped their opposition after changes were made to account for the seriousness of certain offenses.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s office has indicated that she will likely sign the legislation, if it is passed, by early April; it would go into effect this summer. In the meantime, officials in her administration could not answer basic questions about the number of prisoners affected and were unclear about which office is responsible for maintaining that information.