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Editorial: Jail-release program worth expanding to all of NM

It’s a concept that makes so much sense – and has such an impressive, albeit short, track record – that the Legislature should seriously consider a proposal to make it statewide.

Staffers based at Metropolitan Court in Albuquerque are using a video hookup to interview people who have been arrested and booked – but not yet put in a jail cell – to screen them for automatic release pending a hearing in their case.

The intake officer confirms the defendant’s identity – news flash, some people use fake names – and checks various databases such as National Crime Information Center, parole records and outstanding warrants before deciding whether to allow immediate release or order the defendant held until he or she can see a judge who would set conditions of release.

The results have been impressive.

About 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 reached 98 percent.

It’s a much better system than the old bail bond – aka “money for freedom” – system in which defendants who could afford to do so posted a money bond, for everything from extremely serious to relatively minor offenses, while those who couldn’t afford a bond simply sat in jail.

Voter approval of the bail bond constitutional amendment in 2016 virtually eliminated bonds, but that meant in many counties a person arrested could sit in jail for a weekend or longer before he or she even saw a judge.

Based on the automatic-release program’s success in Albuquerque, the state Administrative Office of the Courts financed a pilot program to expand it to Mora, San Miguel, Valencia and Eddy counties in August, allowing intake officers based in Albuquerque to make release decisions in accordance with guidelines set by local judges around the state.

Based on authority delegated to them by judges, the intake officers also have the ability to impose certain restrictions such as no alcohol consumption as a condition of release.

Artie Pepin, director of the AOC, says it’s clear from national studies that promptly releasing low-level, non-violent offenders reduces recidivism. “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.”

Helping people remain productive members of society is important. But does this system make us safer?

Robert Padilla, the Metro Court executive officer, says it absolutely does because the program isn’t just about who gets out of jail.

“The public should understand that while we are releasing people, we’re making sure the right people are detained.”

Now, the AOC would like the Legislature to consider taking the program statewide. As New Mexico continues to struggle with a stretched-thin legal system, these video releases have proven to be an efficient and wise use of our finite resources. The program protects defendants from the problems associated with unnecessary jail stays while protecting the public by keeping defendants who pose a danger or flight risk behind bars.

The legislative class of 2019 should definitely approve this program for defendants, jails and courts across New Mexico.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.