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New Mexico considers clampdown on violent criminal cases

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is flanked by elected officials as she talks about a package of public safety proposals during a news conference in Albuquerque on Jan. 13. Lujan Grisham said the legislative session that begins next week marks an opportunity to shift the tide of violent crime in Albuquerque and elsewhere in the state. (Susan Montoya Bryan/Associated Press)

ALBUQUERQUE – Mothers who lost their sons to violence in New Mexico testified Monday that something has to be done to keep suspects accused of brutal crimes behind bars ahead of their trials – marking the official start of a legislative debate over a proposed change to the state’s troubled pretrial detention system.

Joined by district attorneys, the mothers told House committee members that legislation to keep the most dangerous defendants accused of murder, rape and other violent crimes jailed pending trial would help close a revolving door that many blame for record homicides in Albuquerque and other crime elsewhere in the state.

Demands have reached a feverish pitch for New Mexico lawmakers to reconsider bail reforms that were initially intended at preventing low-risk defendants from languishing in jail for months before their trials while still giving judges the ability to mandate detention for defendants considered dangerous.

Angel Alire said her 22-year-old son was fatally shot by a teenager who was out on bail while awaiting trial for other crimes. The defendant was wearing an ankle monitor at the time of the shooting and Alire said she later learned there was no monitoring of the suspect after hours, on weekends or holidays.

Johnnie Trujillo, the former police chief of the small city of Socorro, told lawmakers about a defendant who cut off his ankle monitor on the courthouse steps, saying such conditions of release haven’t been effective in his community.

District Attorney Dianna Luce, who represents three counties in southeastern New Mexico, said she has handled cases in which defendants accused of criminal sexual contact of a minor have reoffended while released pending trial.

Alire said critics of the legislation have suggested that the current system is working.

“Well apparently it’s not working because my son is dead and there are plenty of other examples of the flawed system,” she said. “Can anyone tell me or look me in the eye and say one life isn’t worth trying something new? I can't tell you with 100% confidence that these bills will work but enough talk – we need action. It’s worth a shot.”

Policy experts with the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, public defenders and criminal defense attorneys told lawmakers that the proposal raises serious constitutional questions and that more legal challenges would emerge if the state shifts the burden to defendants to prove they are not a danger to the community.

They also argued that detaining more people would put more pressure on overburdened county jails and the court system.

Supporters disputed the claim, saying the legislation would be narrowly tailored to only certain crimes.

In 2017, New Mexico joined a growing number of states in adopting risk-based approaches to releasing defendants that put less emphasis on financial assurances, after voters approved a constitutional amendment the previous year to allow judges to deny bail to defendants considered extremely dangerous.

The constitutional amendment also granted pretrial release to suspects who are not considered a threat but remain jailed because they cannot afford to post bail.

The public has been frustrated with the outcome and politicians have acknowledged that changes need to be made in the pretrial justice system. That includes Democrat Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who is running for re-election this year.

Rep. Damon Ely, D-Corrales, said there is wide recognition of the violence problem in New Mexico, but called the legislation a “hot mess."

He described it as contradictory and pointed to a recent legislative analysis that showed arrests and convictions have either been flat or declining despite the increase in crime in recent years.

The legislative analysis described the phenomenon as an accountability gap, which they said indicated the system has failed to deliver swift and certain justice and as a result is not an effective crime deterrant.

Ely said the proposed legislation would not address that problem.

With the Legislature set to wrap up its session in three weeks, it’s unclear if the proposal can win legislative approval before adjournment.

Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller and others have suggested that Lujan Grisham should call a special legislative session to focus on crime if lawmakers can’t get the bill passed before Feb. 17.