Amendment to expand pretrial detention advances in House - Albuquerque Journal

Amendment to expand pretrial detention advances in House

Rep. Andrea Reeb, R-Clovis, speaks with visitors Wednesday in the New Mexico House of Representatives before the chamber begins its work for the day. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE — Legislation to make more defendants eligible for pretrial detention survived its first test in the House on Wednesday — just barely — as New Mexico lawmakers weighed strategies for addressing the state’s high violent-crime rate.

The proposal, House Joint Resolution 9, would ask voters to amend the state Constitution to expand the criteria for holding someone in jail as they await trial.

Democrats on the House Government, Elections and Indian Affairs Committee refused to recommend passage of the measure, but a bipartisan 5-2 majority agreed to forward it on without a recommendation.

The mixed result keeps the proposal alive for now but reflects the disagreement among Democrats — who hold large majorities in each chamber — about proposals to overhaul New Mexico’s pretrial detention law.

Democratic lawmakers were more decisive earlier this week on a batch of crime bills sponsored by Republican Rep. Bill Rehm of Albuquerque, rejecting them repeatedly.

Rehm’s proposals included measures to expand the state’s three-strikes law, increase penalties for certain crimes and make it a felony to carry a firearm during a drug deal.

But the pretrial detention amendment is still moving forward for now.

State Rep. Andrea Reeb, a Clovis Republican and prosecutor, urged legislators to support the measure as a way to put the question directly before voters. A voter-approved bail amendment seven years ago had unintended impacts, she said, allowing too many repeat offenders to cycle in and out of jail.

“I firmly believe it’s time to send this back to voters,” Reeb said.

Opponents, however, warned against holding more people in custody before they’ve been convicted. It could overcrowd county jails and damage the lives of innocent people, they said.

“One of the bedrock principles of our justice system is that you are innocent until proven guilty,” Rikki-Lee Chavez of the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association said.

House Majority Leader Gail Chasey, D-Albuquerque, said she isn’t convinced a constitutional amendment is necessary. She noted that lawmakers are scrutinizing an analytical tool that helps judges set release conditions, among other potential strategies for addressing crime.

“I’m wondering if we could untie the hands of judges another way,” Chasey said.

But the proposal advanced without recommendation by picking up support from Democrats Charlotte Little of Albuquerque and Doreen Wonda Johnson of Church Rock, in addition to Republicans John Block of Alamogordo, Bill Rehm of Albuquerque and Martin Zamora of Clovis.

Voting no were Chasey and Democrat Janelle Anyanonu of Albuquerque.

Rehm is a co-sponsor of the proposed amendment, along with Reeb.

The proposal’s next scheduled destination is the House Judiciary Committee.

Under the amendment, courts could deny bail if no conditions of release would reasonably ensure the person’s appearance at future court hearings. Denial is now allowed only on the basis of public safety.

The proposed amendment would also remove a requirement that pretrial detention be reserved only for defendants charged with a felony.

Its advancement came a week after Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham urged lawmakers to find common ground on ways to address New Mexico’s high rate of violent crime. Albuquerque has hit a record high in homicides two years in a row.

Rejected ideas

Proposals to enhance criminal penalties are running into early opposition this session.

Democrats argue they generally do little to deter crime while increasing prison costs. But they have embraced stiffer penalties in some cases.

One of Rehm’s proposals this week — targeting the carrying of a firearm while trafficking drugs — triggered particularly heavy debate before the House Consumer and Public Affairs Committee.

Attorney Kim Chavez Cook, speaking on behalf of the Law Offices of the Public Defender and the Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, said the proposal wasn’t necessary, given that use of a firearm in a drug transaction would already trigger increased criminal penalties.

It would have no deterrent value, she said, for someone already breaking the law in a drug deal.

“The presence of a firearm is often quote-unquote ‘necessary’ for these folks in these situations to protect themselves because it’s an inherently dangerous environment to be involved in a drug transaction,” Chavez Cook said.

But Rehm, a retired sheriff’s captain, said longer sentences are a commonsense strategy for combating crime.

The rejection of his bills, he said, demonstrates that Democratic members of the House Consumer and Public Affairs Committee “care little about improving public safety in meaningful ways.”

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