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April 14, 2020

ALBUQUERQUE, NM - Today, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of New Mexico, the New Mexico Law Offices of the Public Defender (LOPD), and the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association (NMCDLA) filed an emergency petition asking the New Mexico Supreme Court to immediately reduce the number of people in New Mexico prisons. Specifically, the petition urges the court to order the immediate release of people who are at an increased risk of serious illness from COVID-19, those who are within a year of release, and those who are held on certain infractions, like parole and probation violations.

“The New Mexico Supreme Court has the power to significantly reduce the number of people in prisons in our state,” said ACLU of New Mexico staff attorney and Equal Justice Works Fellow Lalita Moskowitz. “It should exercise that power immediately to protect the health and wellbeing of hundreds of incarcerated people who can safely be released, as well as medical staff, correctional officers, and communities at large.”

The legal groups argue immediate action is necessary to avoid an institutional outbreak that would spread to surrounding communities resulting in unnecessary burdens on health infrastructure, likely deaths, and certain constitutional violations based on cruel and unusual punishment.

"We are talking about a non-dangerous subset of inmates who will eventually be released and who were not given a death sentence as punishment for their crimes. Our proposal allows for returning these individuals to prison if they violate conditions of their release,” said LOPD Appellate Defender Kim Chavez-Cook. “Safely reducing prison populations so inmates and staff can protect themselves from infection is a constitutional and moral obligation.”

At least 13 other state court systems—in Kentucky, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Alabama, Maine, Montana, New Jersey, Utah, Ohio, South Carolina, Michigan, Hawaii, Washington, and the District of Columbia—have already taken steps to limit incarceration during this crisis. The ACLU, LOPD, and NMCDLA urge New Mexico to follow suit and take swift and decisive action to reduce the number of people in jails and prisons.

“Our community must act now before it is too late,” said Matthew Coyte of the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association. “A public health crisis in a prison is a public health disaster.”

A copy of the petition is available below.