When New Mexico passed the bail bond amendment in 2016, I thought it was simple. The language, which amended the state constitution, seemed so straightforward.
“Bail may be denied pending trial if, after a hearing, the court finds … that no release conditions will reasonably ensure the appearance of the person as required or protect the safety of any other person or the community … No person eligible for pretrial release … shall be detained solely because of financial inability to post a money or property bond.”
In other words, arrested criminal suspects who pose no danger will not be confined to jail awaiting trial, but suspects who do appear to be dangerous will be kept in jail even if they can pay bond.
This replaces the old system under which a low-risk defendant with no money might be held in jail for months, while risky defendants who could make bail would go free until trial.
But the new system has been controversial. Some critics argue that too many defendants are being let out and committing crimes, perhaps not violent but still a threat to public safety.
Under the new system, judges are supposed to evaluate suspected offenders based in part on a nationally verified measurement tool called the Arnold Public Safety Assessment, which compares the person’s record to a set of criteria and predicts the likelihood that this individual will fail to appear in court, commit another crime, or commit a violent crime.
A study released in Nov 2019 by UNM’s Institute for Social Research – limited to Bernalillo County — found 4 percent of released defendants were accused of committing a new violent crime, but 17 percent were accused of committing a crime of some kind.
Whether that’s an acceptable result or not is a matter of opinion.
Rep. Bill Rehm (R- Albuquerque) finds it unacceptable. He’s introduced legislation (HB32) to clarify the criteria for pretrial release. We will learn this week whether the bill is approved by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham for this year’s 30-day session.
Rehm’s bill says no person shall be released if the charge is a first degree felony or a serious violent offense and if the person was previously convicted of any felony or has previously violated conditions of pretrial release for any offense. The bill also provides for drug rehabilitation while incarcerated.
The restrictions seem so reasonable that I’m surprised Rehm felt it was necessary to legislate this. Shouldn’t these criteria have applied all along? Rehm said the current guidelines do not require a judge to consider a defendant’s past record.
Apparently Rehm is not the only one dissatisfied.
The State Supreme Court has convened a high-level 15-member committee to review pretrial detention procedures. The committee’s initial report is to be submitted by March 31, a month after the legislative session will be over.
Rehm has been appointed to the committee, but wants to go ahead with his legislation anyway and expects support from other legislators.
It does society no good when nonthreatening defendants are kept in jail before trial. Public defender Richard Pugh, in a recent talk, explained that being stuck in jail throws a person’s life into chaos. The defendant may lose his job, be unable to care for children, be unable to pay the most basic bills and so lose his home – tragic losses that benefit nobody and add to the community’s social burden.
And – a point I have not heard anyone raise — we’d have less detention if we had speedier trials, but that would require investing a heck of a lot of money in our judicial system, and even with our current flush budgets that’s not going to happen.
New Mexico did the right thing in passing the bail bond amendment. We just have to keep tinkering with the implementation to get the balance right.
Triple Spaced Again, © New Mexico News Services 2020