Support builds for constitutional amendment

Steve Terrell
The Santa Fe New Mexican
Moe Maestas, D-Albuquerque, sits at the House Judiciary Committee, at the Capitol on Monday. Masters presented Senate Joint Resolution 1, a denial of bail for certain felonies, at the committee meeting.

SANTA FE — Both the Republican and Democratic floor leaders in the state House of Representatives strongly support a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow judges to hold some violent criminals in jail without bail before trial and would allow some non-violent indigent defendants to be released. And the House Judiciary committee on Monday recommended the measure by a strong bi-partisan vote.

However Senate Joint Resolution 1 still has a long way to go. With only nine days left in the session, it still has to go through the House Regulatory and Public Affairs Committee and the House Appropriations Committee.

The Senate on Feb. 2 passed the resolution by a vote of 29-9. It is sponsored by Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, and Rep. Antonio "Moe" Maestas, D-Albuquerque.

If it passes the Legislature, the proposed amendment would go to voters in November for approval.

The resolution is backed by an unusual coalition of supporters including the New Mexico District Attorney's Association, the Law Offices of the Public Defender, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce, the New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops, various judges and county officials from around the state.

Lisa Simpson, a consultant for the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Detention Center, told the committee that 11 percent of the 500-plus inmates in her facility are there because they can't afford bails set at $100 or less. It costs her county $125 per day to house an inmate, Simpson said.

Curry County Commission Chairman Wendell Bostwick told the committee that keeping poor inmates has been a burden on his county and others, and, "The counties have tried for years to get non-violent offenders out of jail."

According to a fiscal impact report on the resolution by the Legislative Finance Committee, the proposed constitutional amendment could save the state $18 million annually.

Most of those who spoke against the proposed amendment Monday were from the bail bond companies and their lobbyists. "This is a clear attack on the bail bond industry," said Gerald Madrid, president of the Bail Bond Association of New Mexico.

Another bail bondsman told the committee, "You're sending the message that all you have to say is `I'm poor' and you get out of jail."

Both Wirth and state Supreme Court Justice Charles Daniels said that's not true. In regard to poor defendants, the proposed amendment, as written says, "A person who is not a danger and is otherwise eligible for bail shall not be detained solely because of financial inability to post a money or property bond."

"These aren't customers of the bail bond industry anyway," said House Minority Leader Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe. "It's not like customers are being taken away from anyone."

House Majority Leader Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque, agreed that holding people in jail just because they can't pay bail is unjust and needlessly costly. On a pragmatic level he said that it's important to pass the resolution because it's the only measure to give judges the right to hold violent offenders without bail that has a chance of passing the full Legislature. "If we don't get something passed, lives are going to be lost," he said.

There is another bill -- House Joint Resolution 13, sponsored by Rep. David Adkins, R-Albuquerque -- that doesn't have the section about releasing non-violent poor defendants that has passed two House committees. Backers of SJR 1 have said that the House measure has no chance of passing the Democrat-controlled Senate.

During a House floor session Monday, Maestas asked House Speaker Don Tripp, R-Socorro, why he assigned the Senate measure to three committees while he only gave the House resolution two committees. House Republicans have harshly criticized Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez for doing that to House bills. Maestas also asked why SJR 1 was assigned to the House Appropriations and Finance Committee while most crime bills, including Adkins' proposed amendment have not been assigned to that committee.

Tripp said perhaps HJR 13 should get a hearing in the Appropriations Committee as well.