Bail compromise passes House

Steve Terrell
The Santa Fe New Mexican
Bail reform

SANTA FE — Only days it ago it looked as if a proposed constitutional amendment meant to reform the state's bail system had become stalled in the state House of Representatives.

However, on Monday the House passed Senate Joint Resolution 1 on a 69-0 vote. The measure would allow judges to keep some people accused of violent offenses in jail without bail while they await trial, while also allowing judges to release indigent non-violent defendants who are incarcerated just because they can't afford bail.

Rep. Antonio "Moe" Maestas, D-Albuquerque, said the amendment, if passed by voters in November, would result in $18 million in savings for counties in the state, while keeping "the worst of the worst" behind bars.

House Majority Leader Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque, said a compromise on the measure reached last week was a culmination of a year's worth of work.

A wide coalition had supported the proposed amendment sponsored by Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, in its original version. Supporters included the state 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.

However, state and national groups representing the bail bond industry had vehemently opposed the resolution, claiming the proposal was "part of a national agenda to have the bail system declared unconstitutional."

And that opposition was threatening to derail it. Bail bondsmen were opposed to the part of the bill that said no non-violent defendant would remain incarcerated based solely on the inability to pay bail.

Legislators last week negotiated with industry lobbyists to craft a compromise. Indigent defendants would have to file a petition with a judge to ask for release. The compromise states that once defendants file a motion for relief from bail, "The court shall rule on the motion in an expedited manner."

That satisfied the bail bond industry and House Republicans who had opposed the bill. But the new language caused some groups that had backed the proposal to back out. The American Civil Liberties Union and the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association announced Friday they could no longer support it. Other groups, including Young Women United and Strong Families New Mexico also dropped their support.

Once the compromise was reached, the measure moved swiftly through the House. Hours before the House floor vote, the House Regulatory and Public Affairs Committee unanimously recommended it. Later, the House leadership decided it did not have to go through the House Appropriations and Finance Committee, where it initially had been assigned by House Speaker Don Tripp, R-Socorro.

The bill goes now to the Senate for concurrence.