ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Judges can deny bail to the most dangerous defendants under a constitutional amendment approved Tuesday by New Mexico voters.
Until now, the state constitution guaranteed people the opportunity to get out of jail before trial, with the narrow exception of those accused of the most serious felonies. Critics said the system routinely allowed violent defendants out on the streets.
Outside a polling center in Albuquerque’s North Valley, Michael Chavez said he had to support the amendment.
“It’s crazy out there,” he said Tuesday. “We have to get tougher on crime. These guys are getting out of jail and committing the same crimes again. I’d like to see them bring the death penalty back.”
In February, lawmakers cleared the way for the amendment to appear on the ballot after they reached a compromise aimed at addressing the concerns of the bail bond industry.
Aside from keeping the most dangerous defendants locked up, the amendment would allow judges to grant pretrial release to cash-strapped suspects of nonviolent crimes who lack the money to make bail. Those defendants would have to file a motion showing they cannot pay their bail.
The reforms are part of a national movement away from cash bonds and toward risk-based decisions.
Federal judges and courts in a number of other states already have been granted such authority. Congress first authorized detention of dangerous defendants in the District of Columbia in 1970, and the U.S. Supreme Court has held that the U.S. Constitution permits detention before trial if someone is proven to be dangerous.
The New Mexico amendment had bipartisan support, and top leaders from Gov. Susana Martinez to Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Daniels urged voters to approve it.
“As we have seen all too often, the ability of a dangerous defendant to post a bail bond does nothing to protect victims, witnesses, police officers or anyone else from injury or death,” Daniels said in an editorial in support of the amendment.
Daniels toured the state this summer, speaking to groups about the changes. He said nothing he has done during his time on the court would represent a more important improvement in justice than getting the amendment passed.
Judges and other supporters have argued that the state’s bail provisions — described by some as antiquated — make it impossible to balance the protection of communities from dangerous defendants and the constitutional rights of nonviolent suspects.
Legislative analysts determined that jailing significantly fewer non-dangerous defendants could save taxpayers $19 million per year, while detaining dangerous defendants for longer periods could cost about $967,000.