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Editorial: Pretrial detention rules need time to show results

A federal judge’s recent decision keeps in place – for now – the state Supreme Court’s new pretrial detention rules, crafted to help judges determine whether defendants should be detained until their trial, released on their own recognizance or released with specific conditions.

And that’s a good thing.

Because under the old system, judges by law were supposed to require “reasonable bail” for all but a very few crimes. That meant repeat drug traffickers could go free as long as their money man anted up some cash to a bondsman, while petty criminals would remain in jail because they couldn’t afford to pay a bond.

In contrast, the new rules allow judges to keep dangerous defendants in jail without bond pending trial. They allow judges to release other defendants with conditions, including ankle bracelets and other monitoring. And they allow judges to release defendants accused of low-level, non-violent crimes, instead of keeping them behind bars because they can’t scrape up a mere $50 or so for bail.

While bail bondsmen are understandably unhappy that many defendants will no longer require their services, the new rules are far preferable and vastly fairer – when implemented correctly – than the old system of having judges often base pretrial release decisions on how much money a defendant has, or whether his family or friends will sign over enough collateral to have a bondsman post the bond.

Because shouldn’t public safety and flight risk, not financial assets, drive who’s in jail and who isn’t?

A handful of state senators, representatives of the bond industry and a defendant who was incarcerated for several days under the new rules recently sought a preliminary injunction as part of a lawsuit to suspend the rules. The defendants in the lawsuit, which include judges and court officials, have filed a motion to dismiss it.

This month, Senior U.S. District Judge Robert Junnell denied the preliminary injunction.

It was the right move.

Remember, the new rules were developed after voters overwhelmingly approved an amendment to the state Constitution. The Bernalillo County Metropolitan Court and 2nd Judicial District Court began using the rules implementing the amendment June 12.

Since then, the amendment and the new rules have been blamed for the release of some repeat offenders who many believe are a clear danger to the public.

If anything, the amendment gives the judges more leeway to keep serious offenders behind bars.

But as with any new system, some education, communication and adjustments are in order as judges try to interpret the rules.

A key would be tracking which suspects released under the new rules ever show up in court or re-offend while awaiting trial; that’s something the courts need to do and report back to the public.

The amendment passed at least in part because New Mexicans, and especially police officers, were undeniably sick of the “revolving door” that let criminals of most any ilk post bond and get back on the streets the next day, only to continue their burglaries, car thefts, assaults, drug trafficking, etc.

And New Mexicans should be sick of a locked door that kept first-time offenders and petty criminals away from the families, jobs and support systems that can get them on a better path.

Last year, New Mexico voters said “enough is enough” and approved enabling legislation for a new pretrial release system aimed at keeping the right people in jail. Now it’s up to the judges – keeping in mind the public’s safety – to make sure the right people stay in jail.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.