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Revolving cell door for violent offenders

Micah Criswell appears in metro court via video November 24 for arraignment in the death of Tannis Johnson. Two days earlier, Criswell came up with just $1,750 to make bail after being arrested in Johnson's beating. He was rearrested after she died from her injuries. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

Micah Criswell appears in metro court via video November 24 for arraignment in the death of Tannis Johnson. Two days earlier, Criswell came up with just $1,750 to make bail after being arrested in Johnson’s beating. He was rearrested after she died from her injuries. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal

Editor’s note: This is another in a series of stories about changes in the state’s bail bond system, including a proposed constitutional amendment. The previous stories can be found at ABQjournal.com/bail-bond-reform.

In Albuquerque, N.M., a man can allegedly beat his girlfriend until she’s unconscious, be booked into jail on a felony aggravated battery charge while she’s on life support and get back on the street the same day by coming up with just $1,750 to make bail.

This is no hypothetical – and perhaps not surprising in a state that, in 2013, ranked third most deadly nationally for women killed by men.

It happened just last month in the case of Micah Criswell, despite his two prior domestic violence arrests in the past 18 months and an outstanding warrant for failing to appear in court.

No judge was involved in deciding whether Criswell should have been released on $17,500 bond just before midnight on Nov. 22, said a Metro Court spokeswoman.

In 2014, Criswell allegedly sent an ex-girlfriend a photo of her clothes on fire and has a pending misdemeanor charge of damaging the window of a truck belonging to an ex-girlfriend’s roommate.

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But no judge considered Criswell’s past history, or whether he was a threat to public safety or a flight risk.

Under a longstanding practice at the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Detention Center, Criswell was able to post a so-called “jailhouse bond” through a bail bondsman that was based solely on the crimes with which he was charged.

Criswell’s primary charge – third-degree felony aggravated battery against a household member with great bodily harm – has a predetermined $15,000 bond at MDC.

That’s more than the $10,000 bond for people charged with attempted murder, but less than the $20,000 bond for felony fraudulent telemarketing, according to the jail bond schedule obtained by the Journal. Criswell’s tampering with evidence charge added another $2,500 to the bond total.

Such jailhouse bonds are considered a convenience that allows defendants to get out of jail prior to trial without having to wait to see a judge.

Criswell’s father agreed to pay 10 percent of the bond, or $1,750, to Gerald Madrid Bail Bonds, which put up a property bond on his behalf with the court.

“I had no idea of the severity of the victim,” Madrid said in a Journal interview. “It looked like just a routine domestic violence case.”

Before Criswell was released, an employee with Metro Court’s background investigation office issued Criswell a standard set of conditions to follow pending trial, such as not contacting the victim or committing other crimes.

Only after Criswell’s purported on-again-off-again girlfriend, Tannis Johnson, 34, died from her injuries on Nov. 23 was he rearrested on a murder charge.

Metro Court Judge John Duran set his new bond on the murder charge at $250,000 cash only on Nov. 24, denying a request by Criswell’s attorney, Jason Bowles, that Criswell be released to the custody of his parents.

During that court appearance, a pretrial investigator told the judge that Criswell had 18 bench warrants, two for failure to appear, and that his risk level was “high.”

Bowles didn’t return a Journal phone call last week seeking comment.

The practice of releasing defendants on jailhouse bonds runs contrary to a state Supreme Court ruling last year that required judges to assess individual defendants’ cases before possible release, determining if they are likely to appear in court for trial or pose a safety threat. Release shouldn’t be based on the criminal charge alone or how much money a defendant can pay to get out, according to the court.

Under the current system, the wrong defendants are being released, endangering the community, say proponents of a proposed bail reform constitutional amendment expected to be considered by the state Legislature next month. If approved, the amendment would go to voters in November.

Under a recent state Supreme Court interpretation of the state constitution, judges in New Mexico have no authority under existing law to deny release to a defendant known to be a danger to the community or a substantial flight risk, with the exception of certain capital cases and a narrow category of repeat offenses.

“As a result, dangerous defendants are repeatedly arrested and repeatedly released to commit new crimes against the community if they find a way … to come up with bail money, often targeting domestic violence and other especially vulnerable victims,” according to statement from the New Mexico Administrative Office of the Courts.

The state Supreme Court and others are backing the proposed constitutional amendment to give judges the discretion to hold some defendants without bond if they are deemed to be dangerous or a flight risk. Other changes are under consideration that could eliminate monetary bond for low-risk offenders and explicitly outlaw predetermined monetary bond schedules.

Until then, some of the jails in New Mexico have continued to allow jailhouse bond.

Different rules

Valencia County Magistrate Tina Garcia says a charge of domestic violence in her county carries a jailhouse bond of $10,000 cash only.

“We have that number there for a specific reason,” she recently told a meeting sponsored by the New Mexico Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “Most people can’t put $10,000 up to get out of jail. The dollar amount for that bond is put so high to keep him there (in jail) until he does see a judge, because we want to talk to him before we release him.”

The jail stay also helps to “make sure the victim is safe” before an alleged offender bonds out, she added.

Garcia said she supports the proposed constitutional amendment.

“I think some of these defendants shouldn’t have the right to post bond,” she said. “I think they need to stay in custody. I’ve seen a lot of them, and I’m just as sick and tired of the repeat offenders as everybody else is.”

A changed story

Criswell, 36, was awaiting trial on a charge of misdemeanor criminal damage to property when he called 911 on Nov. 21 at 8:24 p.m. to report that a “friend” was unconscious after she hit her head on a table.

Albuquerque police officers who arrived at Criswell’s home reported finding a partially clothed Johnson unconscious on the bed, with wounds to her head and face. Multiple bloodstains and smears indicated a struggle.

A flat-screen television lay smashed at the foot of a bed, and a broken white cellphone was on the floor of another room, according to a criminal complaint.

Criswell initially told police he saw Johnson “throw herself over an end table” and said she began to yell about their past relationship history.

Later, Criswell changed his story, contending Johnson punched him several times in the face and pushed him into the television. That’s when he got mad and shoved her, causing her to strike her head, the complaint states.

After she lost consciousness, Criswell told police, he took the dog for a walk, returned five minutes later and called 911.

Criswell said he tried to wash up to “extricate himself from the incident,” but he still had dried blood on the bottom of his feet and underneath his nails, the complaint says.

He was booked into jail around 8:30 a.m. Nov. 22, a Metro Court spokeswoman said. The criminal complaint notes that Johnson “remained on life support” at the time of Criswell’s arrest.

Court records show that Criswell had a warrant outstanding for failing to appear in court Aug. 20 on a charge of damaging the windshield of a truck at a home on Arizona St. NE. The owner of the truck reported having “problems with their roommate’s ex-boyfriend, Micah Criswell.” Criswell was accused of throwing a large rock at the windshield, and police summoned him to appear in Metro Court to face the charge.

In a case last year, the Bernalillo County District Attorney’s Office in November 2014 dropped a misdemeanor charge against Criswell of using a telephone to terrify, intimidate, threaten, harass, annoy or offend because the victim – a different woman – didn’t show up for trial.

The alleged victim in that March 2014 case told police that her ex-boyfriend, Criswell, began harassing her after they broke up, at one point sending her photos of some of her clothes on fire and threatening to slash her car tires.

Police told Criswell back then that the victim intended to get a restraining order against him.

Paper protection

Restraining orders can be effective, but are violated with alarming frequency, say some advocates who help victims of domestic violence.

Shelbie Allen, of New Mexico Legal Aid, said such orders won’t matter to a certain percentage of abusers.

“A piece of paper is not going to stop an offender if they truly want to get to the other person. The only people that it will really prohibit are those who have a cooling off period and then go, ‘What have I done? I need to step back.’ ”

In some states, defendants accused of domestic violence, sex offenses, stalking, violation of a protective order and other violent offenses are often presumed by law to pose a higher risk to victim and community safety, says the National Conference of State Legislatures. In Utah, defendants can be denied bail altogether if the evidence supports the charge.

Seven states and the District of Columbia mandate or allow a limited period of detention before release in such cases, referred to it as a “cooling off” period.

But not in New Mexico.

The national Violence Policy Center found that women in New Mexico were at an increased risk of domestic violence.

In 2010, New Mexico had the seventh-highest rate in the country of women being killed by men, according to the Center. Three years later, New Mexico’s was third-highest, based on 2013 data cited by the Center.

Lynn Gentry Wood, executive director of the Albuquerque-based Domestic Violence Resource Center, said the most dangerous time for a victim is in the first 72 hours after an incident or an offender’s arrest.

“Our advocates will actually go with law enforcement to the home or wherever the scene is and work with the victim,” Gentry Wood said. “In a lot of cases, we physically relocate the victim and children. Because of this repeat offender being able to bond out so quickly and get back there, there’s not that cooling off period. Everybody’s in heightened awareness.”

Her staff will call judges in the middle of the night, helping law enforcement seek protection orders for the victims.

At times, it is Gentry Wood’s staff that finds “the ones (the offenders) that are really bad” and gives their whereabouts to sheriffs’ officers who serve the protection orders. Such orders, which can extend for up to 10 years or longer, can help protect a victim even after the criminal case is resolved, she said.

But passage of the proposed constitutional amendment allowing judges to deny bail in cases of dangerous offenders “would revolutionize the way we are able to help our victims,” she added.

“We would have that period of time to get them restabilized without fear of that offender coming back until (released by a judge),” Gentry Wood said. “There wouldn’t be that need to pull them out of their homes at 3 a.m. and take them to a shelter or knock on a friend’s door to get them safe.”

Her own staff would no longer have to seek out dangerous offenders in the community when trying to serve protection orders.

“What it would help is the safety issue because the violent ones that are our biggest concern would then be incarcerated and we could go serve them at MDC as opposed to in their apartment.”

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