New Mexico is besieged by crime.
This is painfully old news to New Mexicans. Albuquerque and cities and towns across the state are suffering from a crime-rate spike. Residents are understandably alarmed, and businesses are even threatening to relocate to safer destinations.
When I was U.S. Attorney, I spent much of my time trying to lock up violent offenders, sexual predators and drug kingpins. But I became frustrated that our system kept sweeping up so many low-level, non-violent offenders, and we were turning them into better criminals rather than better citizens. That was certainly true with respect to our money bail system. That’s why I was so pleased to see New Mexico cast off the status quo and take steps to reduce the number of repeat offenders and keep the most high-risk individuals behind bars.
A constitutional amendment passed by New Mexico voters and new procedural rules issued by the New Mexico Supreme Court are helping to overhaul the traditional cash bail system, in which a judge sets a dollar amount and the defendant must pay up or wait behind bars for their trial to commence. In cash bail systems, bail is often set based on the charges rather than the risk a defendant poses. This means that violent offenders and sexual predators who can pony up the cash go free.
The cash bail system also creates a distinct disadvantage for people who can’t pay. These individuals, often accused of low-level, non-violent offenses, are forced to stay in jail because they are unable to post bond. This has serious consequences for the defendants themselves as well as society as a whole. Research shows that defendants who are detained during the pretrial period are more likely to become unemployed and commit future crimes – and detaining these largely non-violent defendants costs taxpayers billions of dollars each year.
Constitutional Amendment 1, placed on the ballot by the state Legislature and approved by voters last November, does two things. First, it allows judges to detain people who are a flight risk and/or a danger to the community. Second, it prohibits courts from detaining people solely because they are too poor to post bail. The Supreme Court followed with new rules requiring that all release and detention decisions by courts be based on evidence of individual risk posed by defendants. Yet the bail bondsmen have become so desperate to preserve their ability to line their pockets, they are funding lawsuits aimed at derailing common-sense reforms, including the use of data-driven tools that judges can use to help gauge the risk a defendant poses. Thankfully, a federal judge in New Mexico has already rejected their claims as meritless at the preliminary stage, and the public is getting wise to their perverse profit motivation.
Despite these important advances, no system will ever be perfect. And recent news stories have highlighted opportunities to improve the new pre-trial release measures, particularly with respect to prosecutors’ input on why certain defendants should qualify as high-risk. But in the long run, risk assessment tools are far superior to a system predicated entirely on money.
Similar reform measures are already working in other states. In New Jersey, the pre-trial jail population is down 15.8 percent since the state began using a risk assessment tool known as the Public Safety Assessment. During that same time period, crime has dropped 3.8 percent, and violent crime has decreased 12.4 percent, according to the New Jersey State Police.
By shifting away from cash bail, our justice system becomes blind to the wealth of the accused and instead focuses pre-trial release decisions on the specific individual’s threat to the public. As a member of the law enforcement community who has spent his entire life removing violent and sexual offenders from society, I’m grateful to the people of New Mexico, who had the courage to lead the country in reforming a centuries-old system that wasn’t providing the public safety return they deserve.
Bail reform needed to fight crime surge