ALBUQUERQUE – Bail reform is working and New Mexico needs to keep moving toward a stronger justice system, a top official with the state’s court system said Monday.
Artie Pepin, director of the Administrative Office of the Courts, testified before a panel of state lawmakers as critics contend the voter-approved reforms have allowed for the release of violent and dangerous offenders.
Pepin disputed those claims, pointing to a new study by University of New Mexico researchers that shows the majority of people released pending trial show up for subsequent court hearings and are not committing new crimes.
The researchers reviewed the cases of nearly 6,400 defendants over 21 months.
“Rather than criticizing the pretrial decisions of our judges, all entities in the criminal justice system should work together to find solutions that will make New Mexicans even safer. That’s a goal we all share,” Pepin said.
Voters in 2016 approved a constitutional amendment that cleared the way for judges to deny bail before trial for the most high-risk, dangerous defendants, and release low-risk defendants who otherwise may have remained in jail because they did not have the means to make bond.
The state Supreme Court followed up in 2017 with rules for the pre-trial release system. Prosecutors who want a suspect detained must present evidence showing he or she poses a public safety threat.
Supporters say that under the previous system, even the most violent offenders could post bail and be freed if they had the money.
Opponents have pointed to high-profile cases in which defendants have been released.
Republican lawmakers have pushed for the constitutional amendment to be revisited. Democrat Raul Torrez, the district attorney in New Mexico’s busiest district, has proposed asking lawmakers to add parameters involving how pre-trial detention decisions are made.
Torrez has said the new system has proven successful in ensuring fewer petty and low-level criminals are not jailed, but it needs fixing to provide better safeguards for keeping violent defendants behind bars.
Another piece of the equation up for debate Monday was a tool used by judges in Bernalillo County to help them decide which defendants should be released and which should remain in custody pending trial.
The tool, created by Arnold Ventures, scores a number of factors — from previous convictions to the history of skipping court dates — to determine the risk of a defendant fleeing or committing a new crime.
The study released last week by UNM’s Institute for Social Research found 4% of released defendants were accused of committing a new violent crime. Only a dozen defendants were arrested for first-degree felonies, with the rest of the cases involving lesser felonies and misdemeanors.
Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez was among those with concerns. The Albuquerque Democrat and retired law professor said the tool should be adjusted to better protect domestic violence victims since many of those cases are often dismissed, meaning the defendant would not have a conviction record.
Pepin said prosecutors can file motions for detention and judges can consider victim statements when deciding the risk of releasing a suspect.
In Bernalillo County, judges granted less than half of the detention requests made by prosecutors between July 2017 and June 2019. Pepin said prosecutors often sought detention of defendants with low-risk scores but did not seek motions for a majority of defendants rated as high-risk.
The Bernalillo County district attorney’s office took issue with figures shared by Pepin and said that prosecutors in New Mexico are prohibited from detaining people based on flight risk. The office said the Arnold tool was developed in jurisdictions where flight risk is grounds for detention.
“The tool is not broken, the law is,” said Michael Patrick, a spokesman for the office. “That’s why we’re proposing to change the law.”
Other district attorneys from around New Mexico testified Monday that seeking pretrial detention has been a drain on resources for prosecutors and judges. Despite claims by Pepin, they said their prosecutors have had to present witnesses and in some cases the hearings have lasted several hours.
Seventh Judicial District Attorney Clint Wellborn said the counties under his purview have seen the number of cases filed for failure to appear balloon since the bail reform was enacted.
The district attorneys plan to seek legislation to make the system more efficient.
Democratic Rep. Antonio Maestas of Albuquerque said while the system will never be perfect, it will get better over time.
“It’s Important that people have confidence in these systems,” he said.