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DA wants changes to New Mexico’s pretrial detention system

May 22, 2019

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — The top prosecutor in New Mexico’s busiest court district called Tuesday for another state constitutional amendment to change how judges decide who remains jailed before trial.

Bernalillo County District Attorney Raul Torrez said the voter-approved system in place now has allowed for the release of violent and dangerous offenders.

Torrez’s push for further reforms would require judges to presume people charged with a limited range of serious felonies should remain jailed — unless defendants are able to make a successful case for their release.

That would represent a departure from the current system that was overwhelmingly approved by voters in 2016. It demands prosecutors who want a suspect detained to present evidence showing he or she poses a public safety threat.

Torrez’s proposals come as state and local officials struggle to stem a nearly decade-long rise in crime in Albuquerque, the state’s largest city.

“The simple answer is we didn’t get it right the first time,” Torrez, a Democrat elected in 2016, said at a news conference. “That’s the nature of democracy. Sometimes you get it right. Sometimes you have to go back and fix things.”

Legislators would have to first approve Torrez’s proposal for a constitutional amendment before it could go before voters in 2020.

Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth said the Legislature would review any proposal put before lawmakers, though it seemed premature to amend the constitution so soon after recent changes.

Wirth, a Santa Fe Democrat, had sponsored the resolution for the 2016 amendment, describing it as a public safety measure.

It’s designed to allow judges to deny bail before trial for the most high-risk, dangerous defendants, and release low-risk defendants who otherwise may have remained in jail simply because they did not have the means to make bond.

In the past, even the most violent offenders could post bail and be freed if they had the money, proponents said.

“Now we have a system where there’s a tool available to prosecutors to ask the court to hold a dangerous defendant,” Wirth said. “But there’s a high standard of proof.”

That standard is important in order to hold defendants who are still considered innocent until proven guilty under the law, Wirth said.

He said it would be better at this early stage for changes to come via judges who review court rules or by lawmakers, rather than voters.

Torrez has indicated he supports asking lawmakers to add parameters to how pre-trial detention decisions are made, although he believes a constitutional amendment also seems necessary.

He said the new system had proven successful in ensuring fewer petty and low-level criminals are not jailed. But it needed fixing to better safeguards in keeping violent defendants jailed.

Under his proposal, judges would presume — unless convinced otherwise — that they should hold those charged with crimes that include first-degree murder, kidnapping and armed robbery, as well as felonies involving a firearm.

“What it does is it sets out a framework for looking at violent cases and cases involving weapons, which are categorically different,” Torrez said. “We’re focused on crimes of violence.”

By his office’s count, Torrez said more than half of the 2,628 inmates that Bernalillo County prosecutors have sought to detain between January 2017 and May 1 have been freed pending trial. Nearly 40% of those freed had been accused of possessing or using a firearm during their alleged crime.

He said his office has only sought to detain just about 11% of the 22,000 felony cases it has processed since he took office.

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This story has been corrected to indicate that Torrez said the new system had proven successful in ensuring fewer petty and low-level criminals are not jailed, instead of are jailed.

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