February 15, 2016

Compromise on NM bail system passes House

Legislation that would allow for for judges to withhold bail for defendants who pose a danger to the community, but also waive bail for defendants who are in jail only because they cannot afford it, passed the House unanimously on Monday.

DSC_0015The passage came quickly because the House put the legislation on a fast track. In one day, the legislation passed a House committee and the House voted to remove it from another.

Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, was the House sponsor and presented the legislation on behalf of the Senate sponsor Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, and told the body of the broad support for the proposal. Supporters included New Mexico Supreme Court Justice Charles Daniels and Majority Floor Leader Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque.

Gentry said one of the problems with the state’s criminal justice system is that currently all defendants—regardless of the crime or danger to others—are entitled to reasonable bail. He said the proposal would help to stop violent offenders from becoming repeat offenders.

“All of the members of this body and citizens of this state are sick of this revolving door in our criminal justice system,” Gentry said.

Gentry also praised the second provision of the proposal that would allow bail to be waived for those who cannot afford it. He said counties from across the state are spending upwards of $60,000 a day to keep indigent inmates incarcerated.

“These counties are being eaten alive by incarceration costs,” Gentry said.

Rep. David Adkins, R-Albuquerque, who introduced, what he called a competing version, said he was in full support the resolution after it was amended to specify a process of determining if a defendant cannot afford bail.

While all of the members voted in favor of it, some advocacy groups dropped their support earlier in the day.

The New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association was an early supporter of the bill, but the group’s president Matt Coyte said change to the legislation contradicted it’s original purpose.

“The original bill addressed the disparity and fundamental unfairness that allows the wealthy to post a bond while the common citizen sits in jail waiting for a trail,” Coyte said. “This new version no longer holds true to that goal.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico also removed their support. Executive Director Peter Simonson said the changes will put an undue burden on the state’s poor population.

“These amendments could perpetuate a system that negatively impacts poor people, needlessly extending the time they spend behind bars and filling our jails with individuals who are not an actual public threat or flight risk,” Simonson said in a statement.

SJR 1 has been in the works for months. It started as a proposal by the Supreme Court Pretrial Release Ad-hoc Committee last year.

The House voted 69-0 to pass the resolution which now goes back to the Senate for a concurrence vote. If the Senate concurs, voters in November would decide whether to add the amendment to the state constitution.

Earlier in the day, the legislation passed the House Regulatory and Public Affairs Committee unanimously. Then, the full House voted to remove the legislation from the House Appropriation and Finance Committee, sending it directly to the floor.

When closing the bill on the floor, Maestas said, “Jail should be for dangerous people, not poor people.”