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New pretrial release rules are positive step

As two former U.S. attorneys who have over 54 years of legal experience combined, we’ve both had our fair share of prosecuting dangerous criminals. We’ve also seen countless people caught up in the justice system who made mistakes. Throughout our careers, we saw what works in our criminal justice system and what areas are in dire need of improvement.

David Iglesias

David Iglesias

Since then, both of us have used our voices to advocate for various reforms to the system, and more importantly, focus on what keeps us safe. That’s why we agreed to speak on a panel titled “Putting Public Safety First in Pretrial,” co-hosted by the Rio Grande Foundation and Justice Action Network in Albuquerque tonight.

Before voters enacted Amendment 1 in 2016, most municipalities in New Mexico required defendants arrested for crimes to post a cash bond before they could be released from jail. This posed some real problems for the state. Instead of allowing judges to make decisions based on how much risk a defendant posed to public safety, dangerous individuals accused of violent crimes were allowed to go free if they had enough cash on hand to post their bonds. On the other hand, those who posed little to no risk to public safety routinely languished in jail cells ahead of their trials – at taxpayer expense – simply because they couldn’t afford bail.

This system, which taxpayers overwhelmingly voted to reform in 2016, did not prioritize public safety or taxpayer dollars. By shifting the system to one that’s more based on risk and less on one’s ability to purchase his or her freedom, New Mexico was able to have its pretrial system more focused on public safety.

As former federal and state prosecutors, we understand more than most that there are smart ways to reform the system that lead to better outcomes. You can be pro-public safety, pro-law enforcement and pro-reform simultaneously.

But these initial reforms are Step 1. New Mexico still has a long way to go in its work to readjust the system with a focus on improving public safety and restoring lives. That’s why we believe it’s important that the system dedicates itself to continued refinement – studying what works and what can be improved, and making sure we’re continuing to head in the right direction.

No system will ever be perfect, and we should never expect complete perfection from a system that seeks to predict behavior of human beings. But since bail reform was implemented in New Mexico, signs are pointing to the fact that these reforms are working. Pretrial detention is down and crime is also slowly declining in New Mexico as well.

A preliminary report from the New Mexico Legislative Finance Committee projects that crime has begun to decrease in Albuquerque in 2018, and they expect to see the trend continue. While it’s too early to tell if pretrial reforms are partially responsible for this projected decrease, we are headed in a better direction than ever before, and a system driven by public safety factors rather than access to cash along with careful monitoring and data collection will continue to protect New Mexico’s communities.

There have been some high-profile cases that have drawn a disproportionate amount of negative attention, but it’s important that we not let them indict the entire system. Data from across the country show that pretrial decisions based on risk lead to better public safety outcomes when compared to a system that allows defendants to purchase their freedom before trial. There is no public safety accountability with cash bail like there is with a risk-based system that New Mexico has adopted, and as two former U.S. attorneys who are focused on better criminal justice system outcomes, we hope New Mexico continues down this path.

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