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Senate committee OKs bail reform

SANTA FE – New Mexico’s most dangerous defendants could be held in jail without bail pending trial under a proposed state constitutional amendment overwhelmingly approved Wednesday by a Senate committee.

Also, under the proposed amendment, defendants who pose no danger couldn’t be held solely because of a financial inability to post a money or property bond.

At a meeting of the Senate Rules Committee on Wednesday morning, Sen. Sander Rue, R-Albuquerque, said the proposed amendment is both a matter of public safety and social justice.

“Jail should be for violent people. It should not be for poor people,” Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, told the committee.

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The Rules Committee approved the proposed amendment 9-1. Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, cast the only “no” vote. Pirtle said he was concerned that a person charged for the first time could be held without bail pending trail.

Among the supporters was Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, who predicted the proposed amendment would easily win Senate approval.

But the proposed amendment must clear one more hurdle – the Senate Judiciary Committee – before it reaches the Senate floor for a final vote. Committee Chairman Richard Martinez, D-Española, has said he is concerned judges would abuse the provision allowing for pretrial detention without bail.

The bail industry opposes the proposed amendment’s second provision, which would prohibit pretrial detention for defendants who pose no danger but don’t have the financial means to post bail.

J.D. Bullington, a lobbyist for the American Bail Coalition, told the Senate Rules Committee that bail bondsmen play an important role in ensuring that defendants show up for court, and he said that job would be shifted from the industry to government at a cost to taxpayers under the proposed amendment.

Pending before the House Judiciary Committee is a competing proposed amendment that doesn’t include the provision on nondangerous defendants who can’t post bail but does include the provision allowing felony defendants to be held without bail pending trial if a judge finds there is clear and convincing evidence that no release conditions would reasonably protect the safety of any other person or the community.

The proposed amendment pending in the Senate is backed by judges, defense attorneys, prosecutors, business leaders, civil rights lawyers, religious leaders, county officials and others. Supporters say that coalition would crumble without the provision dealing with nondangerous defendants who can’t post bail.

Currently, under New Mexico law, nearly all defendants are entitled to reasonable bail. If the House and Senate agree on a proposed constitutional amendment on bail, it will go before voters in November.


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