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SANTA FE – A proposal to make it easier to hold more criminal defendants in jail before trial survived its first legislative vote Friday and is still alive – at least for now.
The legislation, House Bill 5, faced bipartisan skepticism in a two-hour hearing Friday but cleared a House committee on a 7-2 vote after several members said they wanted to keep the proposal moving while amendments are considered.
The move came after Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller joined police and prosecutors in asking lawmakers for help addressing crime in New Mexico’s largest city.
Albuquerque had a record-breaking 117 homicides last year.
No member of the House Government, Elections and Indian Affairs Committee fully embraced the proposal, but they also expressed reluctance to reject it outright.
“I know we have to do something. We are in a real mess,” Republican Rep. Greg Nibert of Roswell said. But “we don’t need legislation that’s just going to end up in the courts and end up overturned due to constitutional grounds.”
The proposal heads next to the House Judiciary Committee.
Rep. Marian Matthews, an Albuquerque Democrat and co-sponsor of the bill, said she is willing to consider changes as the proposal moves to its next committee.
But she also rejected the contention by Nibert and others that the proposal may run afoul of the state constitution, which guarantees the right to bail in some circumstances.
The legislation is a priority of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, 2nd Judicial District Attorney Raúl Torrez and Keller, all Democrats.
It’s been vigorously opposed by public defenders and others. The state Sentencing Commission has raised questions about its legality.
Keller, a former state senator, said the people of Albuquerque are “screaming” for help and that lawmakers should keep the bill alive while evaluating the constitutional questions. Keeping more people behind bars before trial, he said, will help slow the “revolving door” of criminal suspects who cycle in and out of jail.
“We are arresting people over and over and over,” Keller said. “There are lives at stake.”
Voting in favor of advancing the bill were four Democrats and three Republicans. The two dissenting votes came from Democratic Reps. Daymon Ely of Corrales and Gail Chasey of Albuquerque.
Chasey is chairwoman of the House Judiciary Committee, putting her in a powerful position to shape the fate of the bill.
She noted that a recent Legislative Finance Committee report found that low arrest, prosecution and conviction rates may have contributed more to Bernalillo County’s crime problem than releasing defendants awaiting trial.
“I just hope we actually have a solution that isn’t ignoring the reality and the data we have now,” Chasey said.
Torrez, the district attorney, has questioned the validity of the legislative analysis.
The bill would create a rebuttable presumption of dangerousness for defendants charged with certain violent crimes, including murder, child abuse and assault on a peace officer.
The goal would be to make it easier for prosecutors to secure approval to hold a person in jail while they await trial.
If prosecutors file a detention motion and are able to meet the probable cause standard for the crime, the defendant would have to persuade a judge they should not be held until trial under the presumption they pose a “danger to any other person or to the community.”
Legislative analysts estimate the bill would result in up to 1,262 additional pretrial detainees a year, at an estimated cost to county jails of $13.8 million. The additional detentions could lower the statewide violent crime rate by 1.4%, preventing about 190 crimes each year, according to the LFC analysis.
Lawmakers who support the bill face deadline pressure to keep it moving. The measure would have to clear one more House committee, the full House and then the Senate and its committees by the Feb. 17 end of the 30-day session.
House Bill 5 is jointly sponsored by four Albuquerque legislators: Matthews, Rep. Meredith Dixon and Senate Majority Whip Linda Lopez, all Democrats, and Republican Rep. Bill Rehm.