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. The 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.
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. The 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.
State lawmakers are debating whether to ask voters to change the Constitution and give judges more flexibility in the state’s longstanding cash bail system. Two proposals vie for their attention and if either wins the Legislature’s approval, it would go before voters in November. One would allow judges to deny bail to defendants deemed dangerous but let those who are not go free before trial if financial hardship is all that’s keeping them behind bars. The other addresses dangerous defendants but not individuals too poor to afford bail. Currently, the New Mexico Constitution allows nearly all criminal defendants the chance for freedom before trial, so long as they can afford it.