Bail proposal clears Senate

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State senators easily passed a proposed constitutional amendment on Tuesday that 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.

Senate Joint Resolution 1 passed 29-9, with overwhelming Democratic support as well as several Republicans voting with them, after debate and a failed attempt to alter the legislation.

The measure now goes to the state House of Representatives, which is considering a similar but competing constitutional change to the way cash bail is used in New Mexico. A powerful House lawmaker said Tuesday chances are good that SJR1 will clear that chamber too.

“This is an issue on which we need to be pragmatists,” Republican House Majority Leader Nate Gentry of Albuquerque said. “We have a very delicate balance right now where we have the support of district attorneys. We have the support of the criminal defense attorneys. You don’t see that often.”

Passing SJR 1 is “certainly going to take some convincing of our members,” Gentry added, “but we need to be realistic and pragmatic here.”

Currently, the New Mexico Constitution grants nearly all criminal defendants the right to be released from jail pending trial, as long as they have enough money to post bond in the amount set by a judge.

SJR1 seeks the flexibility for judges to deny defendants bail if they are proven dangerous in a hearing. The proposal’s second provision has generated the most debate. It would forbid the state from holding in jail people who are not dangerous but remain locked up solely because they cannot afford a bail bond.

Sen. Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque, offered a floor amendment during debate in the full Senate this afternoon that would have stripped the provision dealing with cash-poor defendants from the proposal. Had it been accepted, SJR1 would have essentially mirrored House Joint Resolution 13, the competing proposal under consideration in the Legislature’s other chamber.

But Moores’ amendment failed, paving the way for passage of SJR1 — sponsored by Sen. Peter Wirth, a Santa Fe Democrat.

Criminal justice stakeholders have been debating bail reform in New Mexico for months. SJR1 came from a group created by the state Supreme Court to consider changes to the system.

Support has come from groups that typically do not agree, including criminal defense lawyers, prosecutors, business groups and civil liberties groups. Those in favor of changing both ends of the cash bail system have pointed to studies conducted elsewhere, a need for fairness in the justice system and successful constitutional challenges to cash bail in other states.

Opposition has come from bail bondsmen and their lobbyists, who cite potential public safety threats if hundreds of people incarcerated now are suddenly set free, and what the bondsmen say will be the financial ruin of their industry if voters approve SJR1 in November.

What’s missing from the debate, as NMID reported last week, are data from New Mexico courts and jails that would shed light on the scope of the cash bail problem in the state and provide estimates of how SJR1’s provisions would impact the justice system here.

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