Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal
Most of the major criminal, court and personal information databases in use in the state will soon merge so judges can do a quicker, more thorough background check before deciding how much – or possibly whether – to set bail for defendants.
State officials say the Criminal History Clearinghouse could be operational by winter, but because it is a groundbreaking project that will link at least six databases, each with its own technology and subdatabases, the project could take longer – and cost more than legislators budgeted for it.
In addition to challenging logistics, the project has also scaled down in scope from what was pitched to legislators in this year’s session.
“When it got up and running, it was to be something everyone could access,” said Rep. Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque. “It gets to be more complicated than you think it’s going to be.”
As House majority leader, Gentry presented the bills that created the clearinghouse as a way to help police officers stay safe on the streets by knowing more about people they encounter and as a way to enable judges to keep the more dangerous and risky defendants in jail while they await trial.
“It’s helping curb the boomerang thug problem,” Gentry said earlier this month.
But complications in launching the database mean it won’t be immediately available to police officers, as Gentry had hoped.
He said it will take more money to make the database available to police in their vehicles, and he said he plans to ask for that money from legislators in 2017.
Legislators set aside nearly $800,000 this year for the project, with an annual recurring cost of about $600,000, almost all of it spent on eight employees working around the clock at a secured facility in Santa Fe that will house the Clearinghouse.
At first, the Clearinghouse will be available only to judges and their background investigators, who must send in a request for a report to one of the Clearinghouse employees. The Clearinghouse, in turn, will run the defendant’s name and provide a report to the judge.
Department of Public Safety Secretary Scott Weaver said his department is building the Clearinghouse to handle about 200 reports a day. He said the process is in its preliminary stage, so he’s unsure how long each report will take to run.
“Currently, the best information is available to judges in Albuquerque and a few other courts, but many courts and specifically in most magistrate courts, the information available to judges is very limited. With better information about a specific defendant, judges can make informed decisions about release conditions …,” Artie Pepin, director of the state’s Administrative Office of the Courts, said in a statement.
But Weaver said not all courts in New Mexico currently have access to background check resources, like the federally restricted NCIC. Nor do they all have enough staff to search the multiple databases for each defendant.
NCIC is the most comprehensive of the databases, including 21 different categories of information, such as missing persons and property, restraining orders and sex offender registration, as well as people who are known terrorists or those who have attacked or threatened law enforcement. Some police officers in the state’s larger departments have access to NCIC in their vehicles. Those who don’t, have access to it through their department’s dispatchers.
Currently, background investigators on staff at courts in Bernalillo County spend about 20 minutes on each report, doing individual searches of several databases. But they don’t check some of the databases that will be linked to the Clearinghouse. For example, current background checks don’t search the state Children, Youth, and Families Department database or the state Administrative Office of District Attorneys.
District Court background investigators check the state’s court system, called Odyssey, and the federal National Crime Information Center, better known as NCIC, according to court spokesman Tim Korte.
Metro Court background investigators check Odyssey, nmcourts.gov, NCIC, the state Motor Vehicle Division and Department of Corrections, and do Internet searches for other court databases as necessary, according to court spokeswoman Camille Baca.
They then provide a report to judges to aid them in determining bail for a defendant.
Reason for bail
Under current law, a judge can’t use criminal history or the nature of the charges as
a reason to set a higher bail. Bail is supposed to only ensure that someone returns to court, so a defendant with a history of failing to appear or a reason to flee might justify a higher bail.
Still, in practice, judges often set high bail for defendants accused of heinous crimes – which they sometimes post – while any bail at all could result in keeping a low-income person accused of very minor charges in jail pending trial.
“Those who have access to money can get out. Those who don’t have access to money stay in jail,” despite the danger level, Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Daniels said at a business community meeting this month. “It’s an irrational system.”
A constitutional amendment on the November ballot would change the rules for bail. If adopted, the amendment would allow judges to outright deny bail for certain felony defendants.
It could also move the state toward using a risk assessment consideration for setting bail.
Based on social science research, bail risk assessment tools use a matrix to rank defendants into four categories meant to measure how likely they are to reoffend before their trial or to not show up for trial.
And to use that tool, judges need the most complete criminal history possible, Pepin said.