Pretrial detention bills struggling for traction at the Roundhouse

·4 min read

Jan. 26—SANTA FE — High-profile proposals to change New Mexico's pretrial detention system are struggling for traction at the Roundhouse amid pushback against their legality and potential impacts.

The sponsor of one bill backed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham that would make it easier to hold certain defendants behind bars until trial requested Wednesday it be pulled back from its first assigned House committee so that concerns could be addressed.

And another Republican-backed measure was voted down by the same panel, prompting its sponsor to accuse majority Democrats of hypocrisy.

With a 30-day legislative session in its second week, Rep. Marian Matthews, D-Albuquerque, said the Legislature must come up with a response to a surge in violent crime in New Mexico's largest city.

There were 117 homicides in Albuquerque last year and nine homicides have already been reported this month, along with two others in outlying parts of Bernalillo County.

"This problem of violence is not going to go away," Matthews told members of the House Government, Elections and Indian Affairs Committee after requesting a vote on her bill be postponed. "We need solutions."

She also said in an interview later Wednesday she was willing to consider changes to the bill, but said New Mexicans are "sick and tired" of high crime rates.

But critics of the proposal have raised concerns about whether the proposed changes would be constitutional. Some advocates have also expressed concern the proposal could disproportionately affect minority communities, including transgender individuals.

During Wednesday's hearing, Rep. Daymon Ely, D-Corrales, peppered Bernalillo County Chief Deputy District Attorney James Grayson with questions about his claim the Case Management Order, which imposes deadlines prosecutors must meet, was tying up law enforcement officers and keeping them off the streets.

In an interview, Ely said the legislation is not well thought-out and would be quickly challenged in court if enacted.

He also questioned why lawmakers would make changes to New Mexico's pretrial detention laws after recent reports found low arrest, prosecution and conviction rates may have contributed more to Bernalillo County's crime problem than releasing defendants awaiting trial.

"I do not know why we're not following the data," Ely told the Journal. "None of us want to have violent offenders on the streets."

In addition, Rep. Greg Nibert, R-Roswell, expressed skepticism about lawmakers' authority to revise pretrial detention laws after voters approved a 2016 constitutional change that overhauled New Mexico's cash bond system.

"In my view, it's the people of New Mexico who are going to have to make the change," Nibert said.

The proposed pretrial detention bill, House Bill 5, would allow prosecutors to file detention motions in cases involving defendants charged with certain violent crimes — including murder, child abuse and assault on a peace officer. The defendants in such cases would then have to convince a judge why they should not be held in jail until trial under the presumption they pose a "danger to any other person or to the community."

Under current law, prosecutors have to file motions and show evidence why such defendants should be held until their trial date. Prosecutors must also show there are no conditions of release that would safeguard the public.

A Legislative Finance Committee analysis of the bill suggests the proposed change could lead to 1,262 additional defendants being held until trial per year, at an estimated cost to county jails of $13.8 million annually.

But there would be benefits, too, as detaining those defendants could lower the statewide violent crime rate by 1.4% and prevent an estimated 190 crimes per year, including one homicide, according to the analysis.

The bill is part of a package of "tough on crime" bills pushed by Lujan Grisham, a Democrat who is running for reelection this year.

Top Albuquerque city and law enforcement officials are backing the effort, which comes in the wake of some high-profile crimes in which the suspects had been released pending trial on other charges.

A group of family members of Albuquerque crime victims have also been present at the Roundhouse for recent committee hearings and urged lawmakers to keep violent criminals off the streets.

But Rep. Gail Chasey, D-Albuquerque, said opposition to the bill should not be construed as callous indifference, adding, "those of us who have concerns about the bill are not unsympathetic" to victims' family members.