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Judicial leaders fired back at critics of pretrial release on Wednesday, citing research showing that only a small minority of defendants commit crimes while freed from jail pending trial.
An analysis of more than 10,000 felony cases in Bernalillo County found that 95% of felony defendants were not arrested for a violent crime while on pretrial release.
Only 13 of the cases analyzed – about one-tenth of 1% – involved arrests for first-degree felonies while defendants awaited trial, according to a new study conducted by the University of New Mexico Institute for Social Research.
“The evidence from research clearly shows that the great majority of people released pending trial are not committing new crimes,” said Artie Pepin, director of the Administrative Office of the Courts.
The state’s system of releasing felony defendants awaiting trial has come under fire from police, politicians and prosecutors who argue that pretrial release has created a “revolving door” for violent offenders.
In recent weeks, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and Albuquerque Police Chief Harold Medina have echoed persistent calls for changes to the bail system by 2nd Judicial District Attorney Raúl Torrez.
Lujan Grisham’s spokesman, Tripp Stelnicki, said he would let others speak to the “merits” of the study, but Lujan Grisham’s previous position on bail reform “has not changed and will not change.”
Stelnicki said the 5% of felony defendants arrested for a violent crime on pretrial release is “not a marginal figure” and “can still be utterly devastating to a family or a community.”
Lauren Rodriguez, a spokeswoman for Torrez’s office, said those few violent crimes committed by people on pretrial release are “an unacceptable price for our community to pay.” She said Torrez is working with Lujan Grisham to “craft a legislative fix that will keep violent offenders behind bars where they belong.”
However, court officials believe the study shows the current system works.
Officials with the Administrative Office of the Courts said Wednesday that the new UNM study supports their contention that the existing system does not endanger the public.
UNM researchers analyzed 10,289 Bernalillo County felony cases from July 2017 to March 2020 in which defendants were released from jail while awaiting trial. Among the key findings:
• Of the cases analyzed, only 13 were arrested for a first-degree felony while on pretrial release, or about 0.1% of the total.
• 19% of felony defendants released from jail pending trial – 1,951 of 10,289 – were arrested for new criminal activity during the pretrial period. Most of those arrests were for fourth-degree felonies and misdemeanors, including property, drug and violent crimes.
• Fewer than 5% of defendants – or roughly 480 – released pretrial were arrested for new violent crimes. Of the cases analyzed, 95.3% were not arrested for violent crimes during the pretrial period.
“Objective research validates the pretrial justice improvements under way in New Mexico,” Pepin said in a written statement. “Blaming judges and courts for crimes highlighted in news accounts does nothing to make anyone safer.”
New Mexico voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2016 that largely eliminated the former system of money bail bonds.
The change was intended to prevent low-level defendants from being kept in jail because they lacked money to post bail. It also authorized judges to order defendants held without bail pending trial if certain conditions were met.
Torrez, a candidate for the Democratic Party’s nomination for attorney general, asked the Legislature in 2019 to change the law to require judges to lock up defendants charged with certain violent crimes.
Torrez plans to seek the change in the coming session.
His proposal would create a “rebuttable presumption against release” in crimes including first- and second-degree murder, voluntary manslaughter, and sexual exploitation of children.
Prosecutors and law enforcement officials have repeatedly slammed judges and the court system for letting out those accused of violent felonies, particularly when they re-offend or abscond.
Most recently, in August, Torrez, Mayor Tim Keller and Chief Medina, took aim at judges after a homicide suspect escaped from a halfway house by cutting off his ankle bracelet. He was later arrested without incident.
In the weeks that followed, Lujan Grisham joined in.
Stelnicki said the governor’s support for rebuttable presumption for pretrial detention and “criminal justice reform in general” is driven by “her understanding of the importance of ensuring that murderers, rapists and gun criminals are brought to justice.”
Jennifer Burrill, president-elect of the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, said it’s unfortunate that Lujan Grisham and Torrez are having a “knee-jerk” reaction that is not “well thought out” or “well researched” to shift the burden of proof to the defendant.
“That basically means they are sacrificing the constitutional rights for their own political career,” she said.
Burrill said the report, done by an independent agency, is the kind of evidence lawmakers should base their decisions on.
“We continue to ask the Legislature to make sure whatever decisions are made are based on evidence and not some kind of knee-jerk reaction, because that does not make the problem better,” she said. “That’s the same thing that we need to ask of our leaders on this situation.”
Editor’s note: This story has been changed to correct the percentage of released defendants arrested for a first-degree felony.