February 1, 2016

Dueling bail reform amendments advance

Two competing proposals for reforming New Mexico’s bail process moved forward on Monday, setting up an inevitable clash as they move towards the floors of the House and Senate.

iStock_000002715910_LargeThe Senate version has two components: It would allow judges to deny release of those awaiting trial if they are deemed a danger to the public and it would allow judges to not impose bond if the only thing keeping someone accused of a non-violent crime in jail is a lack of ability to pay bond. The House version only has the first part, on allowing judges to keep those deemed dangerous in jail until trial.

In the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, presented his version along with New Mexico Supreme Court Justice Charles Daniels. Wirth said the legislation was “narrowed dramatically” since he started the vetting process through interim committees last year. The resolution would go on to pass with a bipartisan vote of 7-2.

Those who spoke out in favor of the Senate version included the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce, the New Mexico Association of Counties, a number of current and retired judges and numerous other criminal justice advocacy groups.

Except for one former magistrate judge, all of those in opposition of the Senate version were members of the bail bonds industry or lobbyists for the industry. Many of those who opposed the Senate constitutional amendment supported the provision that would deny bail.

Sen. John Ryan, R-Albuquerque, said he originally thought he would have to struggle over a decision on the proposal, but said he ultimately agreed with the legislation.

Sen. Lisa Torraco, R-Albuquerque, said she, as a criminal defense lawyer, sees people “at their lowest” and works to set her clients on the right track. She said often defense attorneys are seen as siding with criminals, but that actually she works to reform her clients.

“My job is to help clean them up and brush them off and get them back on the right path,” Torraco said.

She still had concerns about proposal. She said since she first read the legislation she started to understand the concerns of the bail industry.

The only two members present to vote against the legislation were Sen. Richard Martinez, D-Espanola, a former judge, and Sen. Ron Griggs, R-Alamogordo.

Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez

Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez

After the vote, Sen. Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, took a moment to address the proposal and also call for a more civil discourse among politicians. While Sanchez said he shared some concerns with the bail industry on economic grounds, but called out a handful of speakers who criticized the proposal because it would release dangerous criminals.

“You’re providing a bond to get them out,” Sanchez said of bail bonds officials.

He said he hoped that future discussions would prove to be more civil. During public comment, a bail bond agent criticized one specific public defender in the room for getting a plea deal in a previous case. Sanchez said that sort of attack has no place in the Legislature.

“I’m getting really tired of the personal attacks, Sanchez said, referring to attacks he said came from House Majority Floor Leader Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque.

He went on to call the Senate, “the responsible side.”

The House Judiciary Committee passed the House version, sponsored by Albuquerque Republican David Adkins, with only three dissenting votes. However, House Majority Leader Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque, and House Minority Leader Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, both said the would likely support the Senate version.

“I don’t know if it’s fair to vote ‘no’ on this one because you prefer the other one,” Egolf said.

Gentry said he agreed with Egolf and “likes the one that we can pass out of both chambers more.”

In the House, at times it seemed like the Senate proposal was under discussion as much as the House proposal, especially during public comment.

The coalition opposing the House proposal, including the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce, the Drug Policy Alliance and organizations supporting criminal defense attorneys and public defenders, said that they instead supported the Senate version.

Meanwhile, Department of Public Safety commissioner Greg Fouratt and representatives of the bail bonds industry voiced their support for the bill.

“I think HJR is actually a compromise bill behind which many New Mexicans can stand,” Fouratt said.

On the other hand, opponents of the House version said the Senate version was more likely to be approved by voters.

“We hate leaving this session with the status quo,” Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Terri Cole told the committee. “With no relief and no reform whatsoever.”

Adkins also compared his legislation the Senate proposal.

“We’re putting the citizens of New Mexico at risk by allowing some of these people out without bail,” Adkins said.

Rep. Terry McMillan, R-Las Cruces, said he felt the two proposals should be separate questions on the ballot. House Minority Leader Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, disagreed and said that since they both stemmed from the same New Mexico Supreme Court decision that it would be appropriate.

Reps. Alcon, Ken Martinez, D-Grants, and Gail Chasey, D-Albuquerque, voted against the House version.