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New law has kept 1,000 behind bars

All who work in New Mexico’s courts system feel deep sorrow for the senseless death of University of New Mexico baseball player Jackson Weller. But his tragic death should not be shamelessly exploited to undermine reforms that have improved the state’s criminal justice system.

A bail bond industry lawyer, A. Blair Dunn, recklessly blamed current and former Supreme Court justices for Weller’s death in a column published in the Journal May 17 (“Justices’ liberal bail reform killed UNM baseball player”).

But here is the truth: The people of Albuquerque and all New Mexicans are safer today because of pretrial justice reform implemented through a constitutional amendment voters adopted in 2016.

With new authority under that constitutional change, district court judges – in Bernalillo County alone – have ordered about 1,000 people charged with felony crimes to remain in jail while they await a trial to determine whether they are guilty. That could not have occurred before bail reform.

Darian Bashir, the man charged with killing Jackson Weller, was released from jail earlier this year after being charged with lower-level felonies, including shooting from a car in which he was a passenger. A judge concluded that prosecutors did not prove the defendant was too dangerous for pretrial release. Prosecutors did not appeal that decision.

At the time, Bashir had no previous felony convictions. He had been charged with a violent felony in 2017. But that earlier case was dismissed because prosecutors failed to comply with deadlines over several months, failed to produce witnesses for interviews and failed until the last minute to alert the court about problems securing the cooperation of key witnesses.

Hindsight is always 20-20. No prosecutor and no judge can guarantee a defendant will never commit a crime if released pretrial. Some in the public and the media may believe judges should hold more defendants in jail before they are proven guilty. Certainly, no judge intends to release a dangerous defendant likely to commit a violent crime. Judges want safe communities, too. But judges must follow the law and, since statehood, our Constitution has guaranteed that someone charged with a crime, except in very limited circumstances, is guaranteed release from jail while awaiting trial.

Before the 2016 constitutional amendment, criminal defendants – even repeat offenders with a violent criminal history – could buy their release while awaiting trial if they had the money to afford a bail bond. That was the true “catch-and-release” system by which Dunn and his bail industry employers profited.

In 2015, Daniel Aguilera of Artesia was charged with killing a New Mexico State University student. He was later convicted, but secured his release from jail pretrial by posting a $100,000 surety bond. Less than a year after his release while awaiting trial, Aguilera was charged in a new case with murdering an Artesia man. That case is pending. Dunn, however, didn’t blame a bail bond company for the murder.

Years ago, a person charged with shooting from a motor vehicle in Bernalillo County could have gained pretrial release before seeing a judge by posting a $25,000 bond under a system that tied bail bond amounts to specific offenses. Those “jailhouse bond schedules” were abolished under New Mexico’s pretrial justice reforms.

Today in New Mexico, our judges can detain a defendant awaiting trial if prosecutors prove by “clear and convincing evidence” the person is so dangerous there is no other way to reasonably protect the public safety. That system works.

Blaming judges and the courts for the awful act for which Darian Bashir is charged does not make us safer or reduce violence in Albuquerque. As the community mourns the death of Jackson Weller, we should reject the nonsense spouted by Dunn and his ilk. Instead, we should engage in serious discussion on how to reduce crime in Albuquerque.

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