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SANTA FE – As family members of crime victims watched closely, a debate over the root cause of a recent increase in violent crime in Albuquerque – and possible solutions – took center stage at the Roundhouse on Monday.
Much of the testy back-and-forth centered on a high-profile proposal to make it easier to keep New Mexico defendants accused of violent crimes in jail pending trial, which was added to the agenda of the 30-day legislative session by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.
A House committee spent about an hour debating the bill Monday before holding it over for further scrutiny and a vote, while a separate Senate committee heard conflicting accounts about crime-related data and its implications.
Specifically, Bernalillo County District Attorney Raúl Torrez said a legislative report that found higher arrest and conviction rates would do more to address crime rates than holding more defendants in jail until trial inaccurate. He said the report was based on incorrect data and a misunderstanding of the criminal justice system, and sent a 19-page letter outlining his concerns to lawmakers and the governor.
But critics of the pretrial detention proposal pushed back, with Kim Chavez-Cook of the Law Offices of the Public Defender saying the pretrial proposal would lead to overcrowding at jails, some of which are already dealing with staffing shortages and other pandemic-related issues.
“This bill would actually prevent very few crimes from happening,” she said.
Legislators also waded into the debate, which provided a sneak peek of the battle lines forming at the state Capitol.
Rep. Daymon Ely, D-Corrales, a legal malpractice attorney, described the bill as a “hot mess” and said it would be difficult for judges to implement.
“I fundamentally do not understand this bill,” Ely said.
But Sen. Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque, said it’s time for legislators to acknowledge the 2016 constitutional amendment that eliminated New Mexico’s cash bond system was a mistake. Judges now determine which defendants should be held until trial based on motions from prosecutors, and have faced criticism that they are releasing too many defendants who pose a threat to public safety.
“There are parts of Albuquerque that I won’t go into,”said Moores, a former offensive lineman on the University of New Mexico football team.
Detention cost to county jails at $13.8M a year
The proposed pretrial detention bill backed by the governor, House Bill 5, is sponsored by Rep. Marian Matthews, D-Albuquerque, and four other lawmakers, three of them from New Mexico’s most populous city.
It would force defendants charged with certain violent crimes – including murder, child abuse and assault on a peace officer – to convince a judge why they should not be held in jail until trial under the presumption they pose a “danger to any other person or to the community.”
Under current law, it’s up to prosecutors to file a motion and then show evidence why such defendants should be held until their trial date. Prosecutors must specifically show there are no conditions of release that would safeguard the public.
A Legislative Finance Committee analysis of the bill suggests the proposed change could lead to 1,262 additional defendants being held until trial per year, at an estimated cost to county jails of $13.8 million annually.
But there would be benefits, too, as detaining those defendants could lower the statewide violent crime rate by 1.4% and prevent an estimated 190 crimes per year, including one homicide, according to the analysis.
The bill is part of a package of “tough on crime” bills pushed by Lujan Grisham, a Democrat who is running for reelection this year.
Top Albuquerque city and law enforcement officials are backing the effort, which comes in the wake of some high-profile crimes in which the suspects had been released pending trial on other charges.
Prosecutors from other parts of New Mexico are supporting the proposal, too, with Fifth Judicial District Attorney Dianna Luce from Hobbs saying crime rates are causing concern around the state
“This is not just an Albuquerque problem – this is a statewide problem,” she said.
Rampant violence in ABQ causing frustration
Several family members of crime victims also testified during Monday’s meeting of the House Government, Elections and Indian Affairs Committee, and watched from a public gallery as the Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony on the issue later in the day.
Some expressed frustration at what they described as rampant violence in Albuquerque, including Erika Walker, whose son Lorenzo “Lolo” Romero was killed during a Halloween house party last year.
“I feel like these criminals have more rights than law-abiding citizens,” Walker told House committee members.
While no votes were taken Monday, Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, said there were no quick legislative fixes to Albuquerque’s record-high homicide rate of 2021 and urged members of the state’s judicial system to minimize finger-pointing.
He also said the issue has become highly politicized.
“It’s certainly not as simple as locking more people up to solve crime around the state and in Albuquerque,” said Cervantes, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Meanwhile, the House committee voted unanimously Monday to approve House Bill 86 that would authorize bonuses for law enforcement officers who remain working for at least five years. The bonuses would also be given after 10, 15 and 20 years on the job.
Many New Mexico law enforcement agencies have struggled to retain officers and backers of the legislation said they hoped it would lead to longer careers and more officers on the streets.
For an officer making $60,000 a year, the proposed retention bonus would be $3,000. Retention bonuses would be paid from a fund to be launched this year with a $5 billion budget appropriation.