January 27, 2016

Bail reform constitutional amendment moves forward

Andy Lyman

Second Judicial District Court in Albuquerque

One of the few pieces of legislation dealing with what supporters call social justice moved forward today in the Senate Rules Committee, the first step in a long process that supporters hope ends with voters approving the proposal.

iStock_000002715910_LargeThe proposal would reform New Mexico’s bond system in two ways; it would allow judges to deny bond to those who are deemed the person is a danger to the community and it would allow judges to waive bond if the imposition of bond is the only thing keeping that person in jail until trial.

The legislation passed on an 9-1 vote.

New Mexico Supreme Court Justice Charles Daniels has been a high profile supporter of the amendment. He said that both pieces of the legislation are important and need to be included.

When asked by Sen. Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque, if it could be challenged as logrolling, or adding more than one change of law to a piece of legislation, Daniels said he felt strongly it would hold up against any challenge.

Moores said there are two different parts.

“A public safety part and a social justice part,” he said. “Two questions we’re talking about.”

He said he understood that Daniels might not be able to discuss this because he could hear an appeal on it. Daniels said he would recuse himself from any hearing on the case, but was confident it was legal.

“Those things are sufficiently related because they stem from the same cause that can be addressed by a constitutional amendment,” Daniels said. “They’re dual harms caused by the same basic problem. I think you can’t split this up.”

Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, was the lone vote against passing the legislation. He was concerned about how a dangerous individual would be determined and whether it violated someone’s right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty.

“That’s till where my hang up is going to be with that, that we’re trying to go a little too far and it’s actually removing some of my protections,” Pirtle said.

Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, is one of the sponsors and outlined some of the protections against that. He explained that a prosecutor must first convince a judge that the defendant is a danger to others; a judge could not do so on their own. He explained that the “clear and convincing evidence” that a prosecutor must prove is “a very high threshold.”

There is also an appeal process that can take place any time before trial and would be given precedence over other matters on the case.

“We’ve tried to build in a whole string of protections,” Wirth said.

A House version that would only allow judges to deny bail to those deemed dangerous but that did not include language about those who cannot afford bond passed a House committee earlier this week.

Supporters of the legislation received good news about the bill’s prospects.

“First of all, let me say that I think this is going to fly through at least the New Mexico State Senate,” Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, said. “I don’t think there are going to be any problems getting it through.”

Sanchez’s main concern was that this should have been done already. He said that people who cannot pay bail have been held in jail for months at a time for decades in the state.

“I’m glad we’re doing it,” Sanchez said. “But I’m not real happy with you all for now doing it at this time when you should have done it 20, 30, 40 years ago.”

The bill now heads to the Senate Judiciary Committee.