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Editorial: Bail amendment should make system work better

Violent and career criminals take note: Judges have a new tool to slow the catch and release system in which defendants have been able to quickly bond out of jail and turn around to commit new crimes while awaiting their day in court.

An amendment to the New Mexico Constitution that reforms the bail system and was approved in the general election took effect last week.

Basically the amendment unties the hands of judges who previously were bound by a constitutional requirement to set reasonable bail for nearly all defendants – without regard to the nature of the crime or the threat posed by the defendant – except in capital murder cases. That requirement was reaffirmed by a New Mexico Supreme Court ruling in 2014.

But the high court’s ruling, that had the unintended consequence of being a boost to the system of money bail bonds, also contributed to the revolving door that many career criminals have taken advantage of, sometimes resulting in heinous crimes being committed by defendants who were out on bail.

That put the issue front and center for New Mexicans.

Now, judges can use discretion, based on evidence, and deny bail to felony defendants they consider too dangerous to put back on the street. They also can set lower, reasonable bonds for defendants who can’t afford high bonds, but pose no risk to the community. Or, release them without bond.

With this pretrial detention authority in hand, New Mexico judges join federal judges and judges in some other states in being able to keep the most dangerous defendants under lock and key and to prevent people accused of lesser crimes from languishing in jail for months when they can’t raise bail money.

This worthwhile reform succeeded largely through the efforts and support of state Supreme Court and Chief Justice Charles Daniels, Gov. Susana Martinez, the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce and defense attorneys, prosecutors and advocacy groups.

It was put on the ballot through the efforts of legislators, who overwhelmingly approved a bipartisan joint resolution, primarily sponsored by State Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, and state Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque.

Although the bail bond industry at first opposed the amendment, it got on board after a compromise was reached that narrowed the circumstances under which a defendant could get out of jail by claiming inability to pay.

New Mexico leaders and voters are to be applauded for this good decision that should make the justice system work better for communities, victims, witnesses and defendants.

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.