The executive director of the New Mexico Parole Board has moved to another state job, as fresh controversy surrounds the board’s handling of parole hearings for the state’s “30-year lifer” inmates and lawmakers consider a bill that would check the board’s power.
Sherry Stephens' last day as executive director was Friday, Parole Board Operations Manager Megan Moreno told New Mexico In Depth and SFR. Stephens gave two weeks' notice on Feb. 27 and is now working at the state department of Aging and Long Term Services.
Moreno said Stephens was not fired from her position at the state agency, which oversees the conditions of release for thousands of parolees around the state each year and decides whether people charged with certain capital crimes go free.
Stephens did not say why she was leaving the $70,000-a-year job Gov. Susana Martinez appointed her to in 2012, Moreno said, and she did not respond to emails and telephone messages at her new office seeking comment.
Martinez has not named a replacement.
An email Stephens sent to Trevor Crombie, director of boards and commissions, last month and provided to NMID and SFR by the governor's office indicates that she had been seeking a salary increase since December 2015.
"When it was clear this was not being considered I began to seek employment elsewhere," Stephens wrote. Her new position is classified, unlike the Parole Board job, which was by political appointment.
Her resignation came days before NMID and SFR published a story detailing how the concentration of power in the board's chair, Sandy Dietz, has left dozens of older inmates without a fair, realistic chance at parole after serving 30 years behind bars for murder and other crimes.
Stephens had been corresponding with NMID and SFR for months prior to publication of the story. She would not discuss her impressions of Dietz at the time, but said she had not received complaints about her leadership of the board during the time Stephens worked as executive director.
State Sen. Bill O'Neill is sponsoring a bill that would shift the burden of whether the state's 30-year lifers should get out of prison from the inmates to the Parole Board. O'Neill cites Dietz' resistance to following a state law passed in 1980 that says those inmates should get a fair hearing every two years after they've served 30 years.
The measure, Senate Bill 216, passed the Senate last week and cleared its first House committee on Tuesday after a 5-3 vote and lengthy opposition led by Republican Rep's. Bill Rehm of Albuquerque and Dennis Roch of Logan.
O'Neill's proposal heads next to the House Judiciary Committee, though no hearing has been scheduled as the Legislature heads into its final days before adjournment planned for noon Saturday.
Martinez, who supports Dietz, has vowed to veto SB 216 if it reaches her desk.
An investigation by NMID and SFR showed that for more than six years, Dietz has stacked the panels deciding parole with herself and other board members who believe, as she does, that "life means life," and those who have been sentenced for murder should almost never be released—regardless of how they've spent their time in prison.
New Mexico has an exceptionally low grant rate for parole-eligible lifers compared to other states: just 7 percent.
Stephens replaced Ella Frank as executive director after Martinez fired Frank for challenging Dietz' style of leadership at the Parole Board. Previously, Stephens served as deputy director under Frank.
The executive director is a non-voting member of the board who oversees its administrative and personnel functions, as well as advising the board on the state laws that guide its work. Stephens performed those duties without a law degree; Frank is an attorney.
The Parole Board conducts about 300 parole and revocation hearings each month, at which board members lay out the conditions for people getting out of prison or consider whether those out on parole should be locked back up for violations.
The board only decides whether an inmate is released in the cases of the 30-year lifers, conducting 89 such hearings for 44 people since 2010. Just six men have been granted parole. Three others have died in prison after being denied and waiting for new hearings.