Lawmakers reach compromise on bail bonds bill
SANTA FE – Lawmakers on Friday reached a deal on a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow judges to keep some people accused of violent offenses in jail without bail while they await trial. But as part of a compromise, language that would have allowed nonviolent indigent offenders to be released without posting bail was eliminated. Instead, they will have to file a petition with a judge to ask for release.
The amended proposal, which must still be approved by both chambers before going to voters in November, was a partial victory for the bail bonds industry, which had fought hard against the original language that would have prevented nonviolent offenders from sitting in jail just because they couldn't afford bail.
The head of the North Central New Mexico Office of the Public Defender said the agreement means that indigent defendants would still would have to spend several days behind bars for minor crimes. And the compromise prompted at least two legal groups that had been backing it — the American Civil Liberties Union and the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association — to withdraw their support.
The compromise was announced by Democratic and Republican lawmakers pushing the proposed amendment, as well as a representative from the bail bond industry, which had enough support in the state House of Representatives to hold up the legislation as originally written. A bipartisan handful of legislators have spent the past few days in closed-door negotiations with bail bond lobbyists hammering out the agreement.
Speaking at a news conference Friday, Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, the sponsor of the amendment, said the compromise would still allow nonviolent indigent defendants an opportunity to be released even if they can't afford bail.
Wirth said the compromise for his Senate Joint Resolution 1 "added a level of procedure that I think is very important, so you don't have a judge unilaterally deciding that all the defendants sitting in jail with $100 bonds immediately come out."
The new language in Wirth's measure says that once defendants file a motion for relief from bail, "The court shall rule on the motion in an expedited manner."
"Jail should be for dangerous people, not poor people," said Rep. Antonio "Moe" Maestas, D-Albuquerque. Maestas is carrying the bill in the House.
House Majority Leader Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque, has supported Wirth's legislation from the beginning. He said the provision to allow nonviolent indigents to be released without bond will save counties millions of dollars a year on jail costs. Referring to a hearing in the House Judiciary Committee earlier this week, Gentry said, "We heard testimony [from a Bernalillo County jail consultant] that they're spending $64,000 a day just to keep people locked up who aren't dangerous and who aren't a flight risk."
Rep. David Adkins, R-Albuquerque, sponsor of a rival joint resolution that didn't include the provision about indigent defendants, said, "I'm glad we came to this important compromise and were also able to protect a private businesses with this compromise."
Several legislators at the news conference thanked Supreme Court Justice Charles Daniels for helping craft the compromise.
Dario Gomez, a Las Cruces bail bondsman who initially opposed Wirth's resolution, also said the compromise was a good one.
But some legal organizations that had backed Wirth's measure as originally written expressed disappointment Friday.
Steve Allen of the ACLU said the new requirements for indigent defendants to file motions makes it hard to predict how different judges will interpret it. Allen said the organization already was wary about "enshrining preventative detention in the state Constitution."
Rikki-Lee Chavez of the criminal defense lawyers group said her organization had helped in the crafting of the original resolution, but "this quick change" in the measure makes it impossible for the group to support it.
However, both Chavez and Allen said their organizations would not actively oppose the resolution. Initially, both groups were part of a large, bipartisan collection of diverse interests — including the New Mexico District Attorney's Association and the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce — that supported the bill.
"We'll probably reluctantly back it," said Ben Baur, district defender for the New Mexico Office of the Public Defender. But he said the change would result in keeping indigent defendants in jail for several days before their motions for release went through the courts.
For several days, legislators including Wirth, Gentry and Adkins have been meeting and exchanging proposed language for the resolution to create a compromise.
At one point Thursday, Wirth came into the House Judiciary Committee, of which Adkins and Gentry are members. The three left the committee meeting, telling a reporter in the hallway they were going to an office next door to the committee room to meet with a bail bond lobbyist. But that meeting was brief. An agreement wasn't reached until a few hours later.
The battle isn't over yet. SJR 1 still has two House committee assignments. Its next stop: the House Regulatory and Public Affairs Committee, chaired by Rep. Yvette Harrell, R-Alamogordo, who did not put it on Friday's agenda. The measure also is assigned to the House Appropriations and Finance Committee, though Maestas said he might try to get it removed from that committee.
If the resolution passes the House, it would have to go back to the Senate to approve the changes. If the Senate approves it, the proposed amendment would go to voters in November.