Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – A top New Mexico court official pushed back Monday on recurring criticism against a 2016 bail reform measure, citing figures that indicate criminal defendants released before trial are not the driving force behind high violent crime rates in the Albuquerque area.
Artie Pepin, director of the Administrative Office of the Courts, said University of New Mexico researchers found that 83% of released defendants during a recent nearly two-year period had no new arrests while awaiting trial. And of those arrested, only a small number were accused of committing first-degree felonies that are typically the most violent types of crimes.
He also said that during a recent two-year period, judges granted 462 of the 646 pretrial detention motions filed by Bernalillo County prosecutors – or roughly 71% – in cases involving defendants deemed dangerous under a risk assessment tool.
“Bail reform is working as intended and New Mexico is moving in the right direction toward a fairer justice system,” Pepin told lawmakers during a hearing at the state Capitol.
However, Pepin said prosecutors in New Mexico’s most populous county have filed motions to keep defendants behind bars until trial in only about 21% of the cases involving defendants deemed to pose the greatest threat to public safety.
A deputy district attorney in Bernalillo County District Attorney Raúl Torrez’s office did not offer specific reasons Monday about why more motions were not filed, but a spokesman for the office said later in the day the figures were misleading.
He also said the risk assessment tool is not compatible with New Mexico law, as state law bars defendants from being kept in custody based on their flight risk, unlike in other locations that also use the tool.
“The tool is not broken; the law is,” said Michael Patrick, spokesman for the Bernalillo County District Attorney’s Office. “That’s why we’re proposing to change the law.”
Torrez earlier this year unveiled a proposal that would make it easier to detain defendants accused of certain crimes – including homicide – while expanding the grounds for pretrial detention. He has also suggested allowing judges to order a defendant kept in custody even without a motion from a prosecutor, as is currently required.
But some legislators suggested Monday that there may not be appetite for such changes just a few years after voters overwhelmingly approved a bail reform constitutional amendment, which overhauled New Mexico’s cash bond system and replaced it with one that allows judges to keep defendants in custody if prosecutors can show they pose a danger to the public.
Rep. Dayan Hochman-Vigil, D-Albuquerque, said requiring defendants to prove why they should not be detained until trial would simply shift the burden from district attorneys to the Law Office of the Public Defender.
And an attorney and past president of the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association said the figures provided by court administrators show the risk assessment tool is working.
“The (district attorney’s) push toward using presumptions of dangerousness based on the criminal charge alone throws away this successful data driven approach and replaces it with an arbitrary and authoritarian system of detention,” said Matthew Coyte, former president of the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association.
The political debate over pretrial detention comes after a recent number of killings in Albuquerque that, as of last week, had pushed the city to 72 homicides this year – already matching the highest year-end total in recent history.
U.S. Attorney General William Barr, who recently visited Albuquerque to announce the results of a fugitive apprehension operation, blasted New Mexico for having a “subpar” system of keeping dangerous defendants off the streets.
And the release of defendants who have gone on to be arrested for subsequent crimes – including the suspected shooter of 23-year-old UNM baseball player Jackson Weller in May – have fueled public outrage at the state’s judicial system.
“The public is very upset,” said Rep. William “Bill” Rehm, R-Albuquerque, who plans to revive a bill that would revamp the pretrial detention system. “They don’t feel safe. They don’t feel that we’re doing our jobs.”
While prosecutors acknowledge that mistakes have been made in some cases, they have complained about new court rules that were issued to help carry out the amendment.
In addition, several prosecutors on Monday described pretrial detention hearings as “minitrials” that place a burden on already overburdened district attorneys’ offices and don’t guarantee that a judge will order a defendant kept in custody.
“If we had the resources, we’d file (pretrial detention requests) in every one of those cases,” 7th Judicial District Attorney Clint Wellborn said, referring to cases involving allegations of violent crime.
72% of felony defendants released
The data presented Monday by the Administrative Office of the Courts shows that judges granted 47% of the 2,174 overall motions for pretrial detention in Albuquerque-based 2nd Judicial District Court during a recent two-year period. They denied 53% of the motions.
The denial rate was slightly lower in the rest of the state, as 55% of detention requests were granted by judges outside Bernalillo County, according to the data.
Overall, 72% of New Mexico felony defendants were released pending trial during the two-year period, a figure that was decidedly lower than in other states, including New Jersey and Kentucky, that have similar pretrial detention systems.
Chief Public Defender Ben Baur told lawmakers the bail reform system should be gauged on how many defendants show up for their court hearings and do not violate their conditions of release.
“What we want is for people to get out as much as possible and successfully follow their conditions” until trial, Baur said.
Courts in Bernalillo County implemented the risk assessment tool in 2017, the year after passage of the bail reform amendment. It’s also scheduled to be implemented soon in other jurisdictions, including courts in Sandoval County.
Journal staff writer Katy Barnitz contributed to this report.