February 8, 2016

Senate version of bail reform advances

After Senate passage last week, a proposed constitutional amendment that would change the bail process in New Mexico cleared its first House committee Monday afternoon.

Jail CellThe bill would allow general election voters this fall to weigh in on allowing a judge to deny bail to defendants deemed dangerous to society. Under the amendment, defendants who don’t present a danger to society could not be held if the only thing keeping them in jail was a lack of money

The House Judiciary Committee passed the bill 7-2, with Reps. Zach Cook, R-Ruidoso, and David Adkins, R-Albuquerque, casting to only dissenting votes.

The bill has support from criminal defense attorney organizations, public defender offices, civil liberty groups and city and county organizations. New Mexico Supreme Court Justice Charles Daniels testified for the bill, acting as the expert witness for sponsors Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, and Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque.

The bill, in fact, originated from an ad hoc committee of the state Supreme Court.

House Minority Leader Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, called Daniels’ advocacy for the bill “extraordinary and rare.”

“This is about as vetted a bill as a bill gets,” Egolf said.

But consensus around the measure hasn’t stopped the bail bonds industry from warning of an impending doom. JD Bullington, a lobbyist for the American Bail Coalition, said the measure would have a “huge ramification” against the industry because bail bondsmen would lose customers.

He called it a part of a nationwide attack on the bail bonds industry.

“In other states that have tried this, they at least replaced the bail system by making up for it in state government,” he said. “This is a very, very serious decision.”

Most lawmakers on the panel, however, were unconvinced by these types of arguments.

“Clearly to the bondsmen this presents an existential threat,” Rep. Terry McMillan, R-Las Cruces, said. “I can’t find it in this legislation.”

House Majority Leader Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque, said “by no means are we trying to run bail bonds out of business” and that the motivation was “to keep our state safe.”

“I want to be clear that this isn’t the brainchild of a criminal defense attorney or judicial activism,” Gentry said.

Others argued that bondsmen couldn’t lose business under provisions in the constitutional amendment because people who can’t afford bail bonds aren’t buying them anyway.

“It’s not like those are customers being taken away,” Egolf said.

Lisa Simpson, a lobbyist for Bernalillo County, told the committee that downtown Albuquerque’s metro court currently houses 513 people in jail a day because of their inability to pay bail. She said this costs county taxpayers $127 per person per day.

“Until you put numbers to it, it’s kind of theoretical,” Egolf said. “But then it’s like, ‘My God, $60,000 a day?’ Because this person can’t put up $50 once, everybody else has to put up $127 a day every day!”

Before giving what appeared to be a begrudging “yes” vote, Rep. Eliseo Alcon, D-Milan, brought up another concern—that the measure could take away a judge’s discretion by forcing the judge to decide how much money a defendant can afford.

“You’re putting that judge in a spot where he or she has to make a decision based on how that person has a standard of living,” Alcon said.

Adkins said he couldn’t support the bill based on similar concerns Alcon mentioned.

Adkins is a sponsor of another bail reform constitutional amendment, though his version only allows judges to hold without bail those deemed dangerous and does not include the provision that says judges should release those who cannot pay.

Daniels countered that the law already compels judges to look into income. He also spoke concerns from bondsmen that the industry is responsible for tracking down defendants who post bond but then don’t show up for a court date.

“We have various tools for getting [defendants] to come back to court,” Daniels said.

In some cases, Daniels said, bondsmen do track defendants down, but not always.

The bill moves next to Senate Rules Committee.