Recently-implemented bail reform policies in New Mexico have resulted in violent, repeat offenders returning to the streets to await trial without any requirement to post a bond. Local media describe some courtrooms as “revolving doors of criminals” where nearly every suspect arrested is being let go unless prosecutors make special arrangements before the pretrial release hearing. One defendant caught on surveillance video stabbing a man 25 times was released from jail, as was another who allegedly beat up his own mother — breaking both of her knees.
Inside the state’s Twelfth Judicial District Court, a news crew recently captured images of a man in an orange jumpsuit appearing to laugh at a judge’s leniency after being set free.
Albuquerque NBC affiliate KOB 4 reports that the community has been shocked by the ramifications of new pretrial procedures which took effect on July 1:
The constitutional amendment that voters approved in November was designed to make sure the most dangerous defendants stayed in jail, and people who were too poor to afford bail and posed minimal risk to the community wouldn’t spend weeks or months in custody.
But to implement the amendment, the New Mexico Supreme Court had to put new court rules in place. Those rules require the courts to evaluate each defendant with a “Public Safety Assessment” tool. Currently, Bernalillo County is using a tool created by the Arnold Foundation.
Even with the highest rate of failing to appear in court and the highest rate of new criminal activity for a defendant, the tool still recommends that person be released on their own recognizance unless the prosecutors have filed for preventative detention.
In Bernalillo County, which includes Albuquerque, preventative detention requests fall primarily on District Attorney Raul Torrez, and the burden of proof is high. Torrez was elected last year after a political action committee supporting his campaign received a six-figure donation from billionaire George Soros. The Hungarian-born philanthropist has invested millions electing progressive local prosecutors across the United States, while his international grantmaking network funds many groups involved in the nationwide push to eliminate cash bail.
Several lawmakers, along with a group of bail agents, filed a federal lawsuit against the New Mexico Supreme Court and its judges over the rules they imposed on the pretrial process.
As the Sante Fe New Mexican reported:
…the lawsuit asks a judge to strike down the part of the policy that calls on courts to release suspects without having to pay any money if they are not a threat to public safety.
Bail reform advocates had pushed the Legislature to embrace similar rules. But the most progressive proposals floundered at the Capitol amid heavy lobbying from the bail industry. Nonetheless, legislators agreed to a constitutional amendment allowing the Supreme Court to change the bail system. Voters overwhelmingly approved the amendment during last year’s general election, but the lawsuit contends the court went too far.
“The amendment itself I thought was going to be a good thing, the implementation of these new rules are what’s causing a lot of the problems,” John Sugg, a district attorney serving an area in southern New Mexico, told the Alamogordo Daily News. “If you look at the language that the voters had before them, there was probably a lot of confusion as to what was actually being asked; it was somewhat misleading.”
“There needs to be changes to these new court rules so we can make sure the community is going to be safe,” Sugg continued.
As the consequences of bail reform materialize in New Mexico, public safety officials throughout the country contemplate adopting similar policies in jurisdictions at every level.
Lawmakers in California, the most populous state in the nation, are considering legislation that would eliminate money bail for most defendants. Meanwhile, Barack Obama’s former attorney general, Eric Holder, is working pro bono to change to the pretrial system in Cook County, Illinois, which includes Chicago. National efforts for reform were amplified last month by a so-called “bipartisan” proposal from U.S. Sens. Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Rand Paul (R-KY) which encourages states to consider alternatives to traditional pretrial detention systems.
Follow Jeffrey Cawood on Twitter @Near_Chaos.