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Candidates for governor question pretrial release rules

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – New Mexico gubernatorial candidates Steve Pearce and Michelle Lujan Grisham both say they favor re-examining the state’s current rules for pretrial release of violent offenders, which were enacted after voters approved a 2016 constitutional amendment.

The candidates’ comments came in response to a judge’s decision to release on a signature bond five adults arrested at a makeshift compound north of Taos this month.

The defendants were all charged with child abuse, and prosecutors have alleged that one of the adults was training children at the compound to attack “corrupt institutions,” which could include schools, law enforcement agencies and banks.

But state District Judge Sarah Backus said in her ruling that prosecutors didn’t provide any evidence of child abuse. And she said that although some of the other evidence presented was “troubling,” it didn’t prove that the suspects were dangerous to the community.

The ruling quickly drew national media attention and prompted a barrage of criticism. The courthouse was closed Tuesday afternoon due to threats.

Rep. Steve Pearce

Pearce, a Republican who is forgoing a bid for re-election to his southern New Mexico-based congressional seat to run for governor, called the decision to release the defendants “unfathomable” and called for a constitutional fix.

“The state of New Mexico needs to be able to hold people who pose a significant flight risk without bond, and we, the people, should provide the courts with what we mean by ‘dangerous,’ ” he said. “Judicial interpretation cannot continue to take the most extreme and lenient position to override the will of the people and compromise the safety of New Mexico communities, as it is under the current system.”

Any change to the state’s Constitution would have to be approved by the Legislature and by statewide voters, which would probably not happen until 2020.

Lujan Grisham, a Democrat who is also giving up her congressional seat to run for governor, also voiced concerns about the ruling, though she stopped short of calling for the constitutional amendment to be scrapped and replaced.

Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham

“We have an obligation to re-examine New Mexico’s pretrial detention policies, which empower judges to detain a defendant due to the severity of the crime,” Lujan Grisham said. “Ultimately, judges have a sacred responsibility to safeguard public safety, protect vulnerable populations and ensure that the community is not subject to further risk.”

She also included a proposed change in pretrial detention rules as part of a new anti-crime plan that she rolled out Friday.

Any effort to undo the constitutional amendment could face long odds in the Democratic-controlled Legislature, which spent hours debating the issue during the 2016 session.

Rep. Gail Chasey, D-Albuquerque, chairwoman of the House Judiciary Committee, pointed out that the new rules are still a work in progress.

“I think we need to give the court some time to figure this out,” she told the Journal.

Chasey also said that she was dismayed by some of the media coverage of the Taos Compound situation and that prosecutors there had not provided enough evidence to persuade the judge to keep the defendants behind bars without bond.

Under the amendment approved in 2016, a judge can deny bail to a defendant if there is clear and convincing evidence that no release conditions would reasonably protect the safety of any person or the general public.

The amendment came about after key lawmakers, the state Supreme Court and bail industry officials reached a compromise, and was intended to ensure that defendants be kept in jail based on evidence of their individual risk of dangerousness or flight, not on their ability to pay a monetary bond.

But carrying out the amendment has proven to be tricky task.

The state Supreme Court’s rules dealing with pretrial release and detention – implemented in July 2017 – have come under fire in recent months from Gov. Susana Martinez and many district attorneys.

The outgoing governor urged lawmakers before this year’s 30-day session to “repeal and replace” the bail reform amendment and the court rules that implemented it, despite having initially supported it in 2016.

However, the several bail-related proposals that were introduced during this year’s session failed to gain traction and were not approved by the Legislature.

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