Updated: February 05, 2020 10:24 PM
Created: February 05, 2020 07:23 PM
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.- There's a debate going on in New Mexico about whether bail reform is putting the community at risk.
“I think there is a growing recognition that this isn't working,” said Bernalillo County District Attorney Raul Torrez.
The rules for pretrial detention were put in place after voters approved bail reform in 2016.
The constitutional amendment passed with the promise that poor low-level offenders wouldn't get stuck in jail just because they couldn't afford the bail.
Voters were also told that judges would have the power to keep the most dangerous suspects locked up as they await trial. However, prosecutors must convince a judge that a suspect poses a serious danger to the community in order for them to be held.
Torrez sees fundamental flaws with New Mexico's system.
In most other states, prosecutors can use up to three different arguments to keep a suspect detained.
New Mexico judges can only take dangerousness into consideration.
Torrez said he tries to move cases to the federal court when possible. Federal court has nearly a 100% success rate of keeping suspects behind bars as they await a trial. Torrez said his office is successful in about 50% of pretrial detention motions in the state court system.
“We take high impact criminal gangs, repeat offenders and people with a gun --- if we get them into federal court where we know we can get them detained, that's where we go,” Torrez said. “It happens on a daily basis. I wish that weren't the case, but that's a reality.”
In 2019, researchers at the University of New Mexico studied pretrial detention rules. Despite Torrez's concerns, they discovered that 81% of suspects who were released back to the streets did not commit any new crimes.
“The pretrial release system that has come into effect more recently has not been a driver of crime,” said Ben Bauer, New Mexico's chief public defender. “What we see is those people who are released and this is what we are talking about, right-- the people who are charged with felonies being released-- those people are not necessarily drivers of crime.”
Bauer believes the new pretrial detention rules are better than the old bail system.
“The bail reform was a big change and it has been positive,” he said. “In fact, since it was instituted, crime numbers have been going down in Albuquerque and around the state.”
Statistics show certain crimes rates on the decline. However, violent crime has increased.
“Violent crime in Albuquerque has not been going down, but it is overall still going to go down,” Bauer said.
Bauer believes local leaders are making the effort to curb crime.
“What we are seeing is that both city and county have made some real long term investments in behavioral health in the re-entry center, in crisis response and these are things that address the underlying drivers of crime and violent crime,” he said. “Those things have only come online in the last year or two and they are starting to take effect.”
Bauer cautions against over-detaining offenders. He worries that keeping people in jail longer than they need to be actually compromises public safety.
“People lose their jobs, they lose contact with family, they lose any ability, once they are out, to be a productive member of society, so there is a risk of holding too many people in custody,” Bauer said.
Bauer believes the current pretrial detention rules are making the community safer.
“The current system is definitely making, over time, our community more safer,” he said. “We can't panic, we can't change something that is going to work now and will work better as we go forward. You can't throw that system out for something that is unproven or we haven't seen yet.”
However, change may be on the way. The New Mexico Supreme Court formed a committee to recommend changes.
“The court has always known that there would come a time when we'd have to look at the way the rules were being implemented, the way they were being practiced, how things are working and hopefully there would be adjustments,” said Artie Pepin, director of the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC).
The state Supreme Court justices filled the group with people from all sides of the argument-- both Raul Torrez and Ben Bauer sit on the committee.
By the end of March, the group must submit a report to the state Supreme Court with recommendations.
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