New Mexico lawmakers have an opportunity to approve and send to voters a proposed constitutional amendment that makes historic and needed changes in the state’s bail bond system, which now allows dangerous defendants to bond out and terrorize the community while keeping poor, but nonviolent, defendants locked up at taxpayer expense while awaiting trial.
Whether voters get that chance is now up to the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
While the GOP often accuses Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, of trying to derail important legislation by giving it multiple committee referrals, Republican House Speaker Don Tripp of Socorro has taken a page from that playbook with this legislation. After the proposal – supported by prosecutors, defense lawyers, the ACLU and unanimously endorsed by the board of the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce – cleared the Senate 29-9, Tripp referred it to three committees. It has cleared House Judiciary 7-2, but faces two more.
The highly profitable bail bond industry, with a fury reminiscent of the old liquor lobby, is fighting this important reform. It is worth noting that it kicked in $2,500 to Tripp’s political committee.
Another recipient of the industry’s largesse is Rep. Yvette Harrell, R-Alamogordo, who prior to the session received $1,000 from a bail bond company hoping to set up shop in New Mexico.
Harrell, who chairs the Regulatory and Public Affairs Committee, told Journal investigative reporter Thom Cole on Tuesday that she is hoping for an agreement between supporters and opponents, but absent that “then we may not have a hearing.”
Why is this change needed?
The state’s Constitution guarantees reasonable bail for virtually all defendants. This amendment gives judges new authority to hold dangerous ones behind bars. As for non-violent poor people charged with minor crimes – who don’t pose a flight risk – it says only that they cannot be held in jail “solely” because they can’t afford to post bond. Or get grandma to put up her mobile home, or uncle Joe to offer up his car title as security to a commercial bondsman.
It does not do away with bail .
The Legislative Finance Committee says passage would result in more dangerous offenders in custody and fewer non-dangerous ones in jail at a savings of about $18 million a year to counties.
Attorney Lisa Simpson testified Monday that as of Nov. 25, the Metropolitan Detention Center had 513 inmates who had bond set but had not posted it. Those prisoners run up a daily tab of about $60,000.
This is a common sense fix that deals both with so-called “boomerang thugs” and poor, nonviolent defendants who are costing the taxpayers big money. It deserves a vote first on the House floor and then by New Mexico voters.
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.