Changes are part of comprehensive bail reform effort

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FARMINGTON — New rules issued by the New Mexico Supreme Court regarding pretrial detention and release of defendants could have a large impact on the state courts system.

The rules are part of a comprehensive bail reform effort that started more than two years ago, New Mexico Supreme Court Justice Charlie Daniels said.

"What we are doing is part of a much larger reform effort," Daniels said. "When you put all the pieces together, I think they will achieve greater public safety than the old 'money-for-freedom' system."

An Ad Hoc Pretrial Release Committee was formed by the state Supreme Court to study existing pretrial release law and practice, and make recommendations to improve the system.

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The committee helped develop the constitutional amendment approved by voters in November that allows judges to detain people without bond who might be dangerous to the public, according to former University of New Mexico Law School Dean Leo Romero.

"It's really reform of the jail system in New Mexico," Romero said. "The reform is basically to help judges detain those people that are dangerous," 

The amendment also allows judges to grant pretrial release to defendants who pose no flight risk or risk to the community, Romero said.

"The reform is to make sure the right people are detained and the right people are released before trial," Romero said.

Daniels said the new rules give the court system guidance as they move from a "money-for-freedom" system to a risk-based evidence system to give judges more authority to make sure nondangerous offenders are not locked up because "they don’t have the money to buy out."

Farmington Municipal Judge Bill Liese said one of the big changes is the elimination of the bond schedule from detention centers.

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A bond schedule is a fixed amount a person who is arrested can pay to be released from custody prior to appearing in court.

Liese said a defendant will be held until he or she has a pretrial hearing that is supposed to be conducted as early as possible, within 72 hours of arrest.

"Essentially, more people will be held in jail after they are arrested and before they see a judge," Liese said.

A concern for Liese is how the pretrial release hearings will be conducted, especially if the arrest occurs during a weekend when courts are closed.

He believes it could have an impact on budgets statewide with courts having to increase their staff and jails increasing their staff to make sure people are available for pretrial release hearings. 

Tom Havel, the administrator of the San Juan County Adult Detention Center, said he is still working to determine the impact the new rules will have on the jail. He has scheduled a meeting with area judges next week to determine the best way to approach the new rules.

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Havel said having three sets of courts — municipal, magistrate and district — could bring three different sets of criteria for detention and release.

Karen Townsend, chief judge for the 11th Judicial District Court, said she believes there will be more hearings regarding pretrial release. 

Releasing more people pretrial with no bond could create a strain on the court's pretrial service program, Townsend said. The program implements conditions of release, including assigning defendants GPS monitors and ankle monitors as they wait for trial. 

Townsend said there are not enough staff members working in the court's program right now. She said the court is strapped for resources.

"I think we've been struggling just like everyone else throughout the state," Townsend said. 

An example of a concern defense attorney Steven Murphy has is someone could be arrested for failing to pay a speeding ticket, and they could sit in jail for three to six days before seeing a judge, despite not being a flight risk and having no criminal history. 

"We were trying to do something to keep dangerous people incarcerated, and we have taken it to another extreme," Murphy said.

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He said the current bond service does society a service by allowing someone arrested on a speeding ticket to post a small bond to be released rather than be detained until they see a judge.

Brent Capshaw, a chief deputy district attorney for the 11th Judicial District, said the District Attorney's Office is still assessing how the changes will impact their office.

He said the DA's Office normally doesn't see cases until a defendant's preliminary hearing in magistrate court.

It could create more work for the office by requiring that someone attend all initial appearances of defendants to assess cases, determine who needs a motion to hold, then gather information for a hearing and present evidence to the court.

Capshaw said the full effect hasn't been realized, but courts are already seeing more defendants fail to appear in court and trials postponed because defendants have not been in touch with their defense attorneys.

Joshua Kellogg covers crime, courts and social issues for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4627.

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