Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
Each day, people who have been arrested, photographed and fingerprinted at the Metropolitan Detention Center are released before they ever see the inside of a jail cell or a judge – after they have been screened via video hookup by a court intake officer who decides if the defendant is a good bet to show up in court.
Court officials say the program involving people arrested for nonviolent crimes is a success on a couple of levels. Defendants aren’t processed into the jail population, where in the past they could wait several days for an initial court appearance.
And 90 percent of the 2,600 Bernalillo County defendants released after screening by the intake officer in the fiscal year that ended in June showed up in court as ordered. In some categories, that percentage reached 98 percent.
Based on the program’s success in Albuquerque, the state Administrative Office of the Courts financed a pilot program to expand the early release program to Mora, San Miguel, Valencia and Eddy counties in August. Court officials will ask the Legislature to consider taking it statewide, allowing intake officers based in Albuquerque using video technology and access to databases to make release decisions in accordance with guidelines set forth by local judges around the state.
“We know from national studies that releasing low-level, non-violent offenders promptly reduces recidivism,” Artie Pepin, director of the Administrative Office of the Courts said. “The longer a person is in jail, the more likely they are to lose a job, fail to pay rent and fail to appear in court at a later date.”
The intake officer reviews electronic court records and other databases, including NCIC and probation and parole records to check for criminal history or outstanding warrants.
If the person is still eligible and has no warrants or outstanding probation or parole violations, the intake officer contacts the jail to conduct a video interview with the defendant.
In the interview, defendants are asked questions about their employment, where they live, how long they have lived in New Mexico, and whether they have any family living in the area.
Based on authority delegated to them by judges, the intake officers have the ability to impose certain restrictions, such as no alcohol consumption, as a condition of release. Intake officers also schedule court dates, so a defendant knows at the time of his release when he is supposed to be in court.
In cases where there are red flags, such as previous failures to appear in court as ordered or a records check that shows a propensity for violence, they simply say the defendant isn’t eligible for release until he or she sees a judge.
Some form of early release program to help people who couldn’t afford to pay a bail bondsman a fee to get out of jail has operated in Bernalillo County since Metro Court was created in the late 1970s.
The program was originally directed at misdemeanor crimes like drinking in public and petty shoplifting.
It expanded over the years to include nonviolent misdemeanors and nonviolent third and fourth degree felonies.
Voter approval of the constitutional bail bond amendment in 2016 virtually eliminated bail bonds, but that meant in many counties around the state a person arrested could sit in jail for a weekend before seeing a judge who would decide on release pending trial – even with charges that often carried a short jail sentence or a monetary fine.
Robert Padilla, Metro Court executive officer, said felonies make up a small percentage of defendants eligible for early release, while drunken driving arrests make up the largest percentage of those eligible.
“In the past, people who didn’t qualify for early release could still post bail bonds,” Padilla said.
Prior to the constitutional amendment, most jails around the state had a predetermined schedule for bail bonds based on the charges. Those who could post a bond, or pay a bail bond company to post a bond, were released without background checks.
Robo-calls and texts
The jails in Mora, Eddy, San Miguel and Valencia counties now connect to the Metro Court in Albuquerque where the court intake officers do the early release reviews.
“We’re just getting our feet wet in those counties,” Padilla said. “It will take about a year before we have enough data to determine if more people are showing up to court.”
The experience in Bernalillo County has been good, Padilla said.
In addition to the screening, court officials say a Metro Court robo-text reminder program, which sends a message to defendants with their upcoming court date has helped push down the failure to appear rate.
That’s important because when a defendant doesn’t show up, it triggers another arrest warrant with additional charges, putting more strain on police and courts.
Pepin said judges would also like to see robo-calls and text reminders expanded for courts throughout the state.
As the courts push to expand the screening program statewide, Padilla says it’s important to remember it’s not only about who gets out of jail.
“The public,” he said, “should understand that, while we are releasing people, we’re making sure the right people are detained.”