Copyright © 2023 Albuquerque Journal
The state’s top judge offered a cautionary tale Tuesday for New Mexico lawmakers to keep in mind as they consider the thorny issue of holding criminal suspects in jail while they await trial.
In her State of the Judiciary address to the Legislature, Chief Justice Shannon Bacon recounted the “tragedy” of an innocent 17-year-old girl, Gisell Estrada, who was wrongfully identified as a murder suspect and locked up for six days in 2019.
“She spent a week in jail and was strip searched several times,” Bacon told lawmakers. “However, the arrest stemmed from a mistaken identification.”
Prosecutors filed a pretrial detention motion to hold the girl in jail pending trial, which a 2nd Judicial District Court judge denied. Prosecutors later dismissed charges against Estrada and charged another person in the killing.
“If a judge did not have the ability to assess the facts, this young woman would have been detained even longer,” Bacon said. “This is an example of the human impact on the wrongfully accused, which we don’t discuss very often.”
Bacon used the case to illustrate the need to balance the rights of accused persons while protecting the public.
“We all feel deep sorrow and fear when we read about a senseless death and other tragedies as a result of crime,” she said. “Yet we must remember why our Constitution protects the rights of every person, including those accused of crime.”
New Mexico voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment in 2016 that largely abolished the system of money bail bonds. The old system “resulted in most criminal defendants being free until trial,” Bacon said.
“With the elimination of money bail, judges now have the ability to assess dangerousness,” Bacon said. “In Bernalillo County, this has resulted in the detention of over 3,000 defendants pending trial – something that could not happen before with the bail bond system.”
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham supported legislation in 2022 that would have made it more difficult for defendants charged with certain crimes to be released while awaiting trial. Lawmakers rejected the idea last year.
Three state representatives are co-sponsoring a proposed constitutional amendment, House Joint Resolution 9, that would allow conditions for denial of bail to be set by the Legislature, among other changes. If approved, the measure would require the approval of statewide voters in the next general election. No action has been taken on the measure so far in the 60-day session.
Bacon also discussed the judiciary’s top legislative priorities for the session, leading with increased pay for judges.
Lujan Grisham in March vetoed legislation cleared in both chambers what would have boosted the pay of judges by 33% last year.
That spending bill would have brought the pay of Supreme Court justices in line with the salary of federal magistrates, or about $205,000 a year. Lower court judges would have seen corresponding increases. Lujan Grisham noted at the time that New Mexico judges already were in line to receive a 17% raise in 2022.
Bacon said Tuesday the judiciary will push for passage of a similar measure this year.
“It is consistently reported that low salaries interfere with competitive recruitment of judges from private practice,” Bacon told lawmakers. “Passing this legislation will improve the judiciary’s ability to recruit and retain high-quality judges with diverse practice backgrounds.”
The judicial branch also will seek pay raises for judicial staff to match salaries paid to those in the executive branch doing comparable work, she said.
Another judiciary-backed proposal would eliminate fees paid by people convicted of certain criminal offenses, such as misdemeanor and traffic offenses, to pay for programs ranging from jury and witness payments to magistrate retirement funds.
Eliminating the fees would end “the unjust practice of paying for government functions on the backs of those who can least afford it,” she said.
The proposal does not reduce the fines attached to crimes.
New Mexico courts responded well to the COVID-19 pandemic, introducing measures such as virtual hearings, Bacon said, that allowed the judiciary in 2022 to perform more than 450,000 hearings and bench trials, and about 1,200 jury trials.
“Courts cleared more cases than were filed in the 2022 fiscal year,” she said.
The judiciary also oversaw a court-based eviction prevention and diversion program that distributed more than $217 million in federal funding through Jan. 12 to help New Mexicans with rent, utility payments and other housing costs, Bacon said.
“The pandemic has taught us lessons and inspired incredible changes that would not have otherwise happened,” she said.