Heated discussion over proposal to keep more people in jail before trial

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There were more heated discussions this week during the New Mexico legislative session surrounding public safety bills, including in the debate over keeping more people accused of violent crimes in jail before their trial.

State lawmakers in the Senate Health and Public Affairs Committee shut down almost any chance of major change on Wednesday, effectively killing a bill pushing for rebuttable presumption. The change in Senate Bill 123 would have made it easier for prosecutors to successfully argue to keep a suspect in jail before trial.

The debate has been going on for years, and a similar proposal failed to pass last year.

Supporters say the state needs to be tougher on crime. People who are opposed say it would violate the rights of those accused.

Democrats have the majority in the legislature, and they are split on this issue.

Sam Bregman gave comments in the committee meeting. He’s the district attorney in the Albuquerque metro and is a former Democratic Party leader.

“The pre-trial detention system in Albuquerque when it comes to the most serious crime is broken,” Bregman said to the committee members.

He clashed with Democratic State Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, who is against the change.

“There are many victims when a crime is committed, and not all of them are the ones that appear on TV and demand we get tougher on crime. Some of them are the ones who sat in jail for six months and lost everything and then got released, and who’s there crying for them?” Ortiz y Pino said.

Bregman pushed for the bill by pointing to cases where those allowed to stay out of jail committed new crimes. Sen. Ortiz y Pino pushed back.

“You’re using one or two cases that you’ve described to us as an example that the system is broken,” he said.

He emphasized cases where those who are accused and held are later found not guilty.

“But that doesn’t mean that people should not be pre-trial detained. There are certain people that nobody can honestly say should be let out pre-trial based on the nature of their charges and based on their history,” Bregman said.

Sen. Ortiz y Pino then asked him, “Even if they’re later proven innocent?” to which Bregman said, “Even if they’re later proven innocent.”

There were questions over whether the idea of rebuttable presumption is even constitutional in New Mexico.

In the committee meeting, two accomplished lawyers disagreed. Public defender Kim Chavez Cook said the New Mexico Supreme Court recently ruled the change would not be constitutional.

Bregman said he believes that is not what the high court ruled.

Track SB 123 during the legislative session.