ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – New Mexico’s early release of some prisoners has been a talking point in the race for the governor’s office. And New Mexico did parole hundreds of prisoners ahead of their scheduled release during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. But how does that compare to what other states did?
In a recent federal report, the U.S. Department of Justice tallied prisoner releases across the U.S. The numbers are part of an assessment of the impact of COVID-19 on both state and federal prisons.
The data only looks at the first year of the pandemic, from January 1, 2020 to February 28, 2021. So, the most recent prisoner releases are not captured by the report. But, the numbers do show that New Mexico released a relatively high percentage of prisoners on an expedited timeline, compared to other states with comparable data.
New Mexico ranks in ninth place in terms of total percentage of the state and federal prison population released early compared to the total amount released. In other words, New Mexico was in the top 10 states releasing prisoners early.
Release numbers weren’t reported for a handful of states, including Missouri, Kansas, Ohio and Vermont. But of those that did report releases, New Mexico ranks just below states such as Iowa, New Jersey, Utah, California, Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina, and North Dakota.
In New Mexico, 11.4% of its prisoner releases from 2020 to 2021 were expedited releases, According to the Department of Justice (DOJ) tally. In that time, the DOJ counted 408 early releases.
Across the U.S., several dozen states released prisoners early during the first year of the pandemic, according to the DOJ. That comes to a total of 37,700 persons across the nation.
To be clear, that doesn’t mean that tens of thousands of dangerous prisoners were put back into communities scot-free. In New Mexico, for example, Governor Lujan Grisham issued an executive order to release some prisoners early if they were no more than 30 days away from their scheduled release date (i.e. they had to serve most of their sentence), had a parole plan in place, and were not be a sex offender, convicted of a felony DWI, and not serving time for domestic abuse, assault on a peace officer, or a firearms enhancement.
Other states used different criteria to decide whom to release. For example, a dozen jurisdictions used the prisoner’s age as a criteria for early release, according to the DOJ.
California, which accounted for nearly 31% of the nationwide expedited releases applied a health status assessment, an age criteria, a risk assessment, and a requirement of no more than 12 months remaining on an inmate’s sentence before consideration of early release. Under those criteria, California released over 11,000 inmates early.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, some states didn’t release any prisoners early from 2020 to 2021. Texas, for example, actually kept parole-approved individuals behind bars due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to local reporting.
Near the end of September 2022, New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham rescinded the pandemic-era executive order to release prisoners early. The cancellation of the pandemic-related early release of prisoners occurred as challenging Republican gubernatorial candidate Mark Ronchetti highlighted the early release of prisoners in a political attack ad, but the order notes that the reason it was rescinded was because the COVID-19 issues have subsided.