Gov. Susana Martinez is calling on New Mexico legislators to repeal and replace a constitutional amendment and new court rules that she says allow dangerous criminals to be released back onto the streets.
The amendment, passed by voters last year, was aimed at just the opposite — allowing judges to deny bail and keep certain criminal defendants in custody — though it also stipulated that defendants deemed not to be dangerous can’t be held in jail before trial simply because they can’t post bail.
Prosecutors across the state, however, have complained about new court rules that were issued to help carry out the amendment. They say judges, in some cases, are requiring hours of testimony and “mini-trials” before they’ll keep someone in custody.
Martinez, a Republican and former prosecutor herself, said in a Facebook message today that legislators should overhaul the pretrial detention process when they meet in January and send a new proposal to voters in November.
“I’m calling for repeal and replacement of the constitutional amendment and court rule changes that allow criminals to continue to harm our state,” Martinez said in her social media post. “It’s clear that the judiciary is using these new provisions to return criminals back to our neighborhoods and it must stop.”
State Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, an Albuquerque Democrat and co-chairman of a bipartisan legislative panel studying the criminal justice system, said there’s no need to change the constitutional amendment.
He agreed that some of the new court rules surrounding the release of defendants are “problematic,” but the courts have shown a willingness to consider changes. And some of the new rules aren’t specifically tied to the constitutional amendment, he said.
“We don’t need to change the Constitution for the courts to do it,” said Maestas, who is also a former prosecutor. “The courts are an independent branch of government and will do the right thing.”
But there are other ways for the Legislature and governor to help, he said, including an increase in funding for staff members who monitor and track defendants awaiting trial.
“We get the criminal justice system we pay for,” Maestas said. “Until we fully fund the criminal justice system, we’re going to have a lot of problems.”
Martinez has repeatedly pushed the Legislature to toughen criminal penalties. She has cited the case of a Farmington man who shot and wounded a State Police officer — after having been previously arrested 17 times.
“New Mexicans deserve to live in communities that are safe,” she said in her Tuesday post. “The cycle of wrongdoing, release and repeat must stop in New Mexico.”
Debate over the pretrial detention hearings has intensified this year, especially as FBI data show increasing crime rates in Albuquerque.
In March, 2nd Judicial District Attorney Raúl Torrez, in charge of the Albuquerque-based prosecutor office, the busiest in the state, aired his frustration for the changes and formally petitioned the New Mexico Supreme Court, asking for a written opinion to guide judges how to put on detention hearings.
Some judges require hours of witness testimony, and others accepting a written police complaint, Torrez said, amounting to “mini-trials.”
Later joined by seven other district attorneys from around the state, along with support from Attorney General Hector Balderas, Torrez argued that prosecutors need clear direction on what is expected in detention hearings and that a criminal complaint should suffice in some cases.
But defense attorneys, civil rights groups and some judges balked at that design, with one public defender arguing that standard leaves defendants “essentially at the mercy of the creative writing skills of a law enforcement officer.”