UPDATE: The Associated Press is reporting that New Mexico House Republicans and Senate Democrats say they have reached a compromise on a bail reform proposal.
Both sides spoke Friday at a press conference, with Republican Rep. David Adkins saying the bill crafted by Sen. Peter Wirth, a Santa Fe Democrat, is the "right piece of legislation to support."
Wirth's bill allows judges to deny bail to defendants deemed a danger to the public, while granting non-violent defendants pretrial release if the sole reason they are being held in jail is because they are too poor to make bail.
Adkins had proposed a constitutional amendment for bail bond reform that had omitted the provision for cash-strapped defendants as a counter proposal to Wirth's version.
Adkins put his proposal on hold Wednesday, the same day it had been scheduled for a House floor vote.
Legislators are considering an amendment to the state’s Constitution that would change the way judges set bail. This resolution would do two things. One: It would make it so judges can keep felony defendants in lockup if they’re shown to be dangerous or a flight risk. Two: It would allow the court to release someone without bail—or to set a more affordable bail—if they’re neither of those things.
Arthur Pepin, with the administrative office of the state Supreme Court, said the idea behind this resolution is that people in poverty shouldn’t be forced to stay behind bars just because they can’t pay to get out. "Bail is not supposed to be a punishment that keeps you in jail before you even go to trial," he said. "And that is the effect it’s having on people in our state who have limited means."
Pepin said almost 40 percent of the inmates in New Mexico’s county lockups are there because they can’t afford bail—which, in some of those cases, is less than $100. And it often costs taxpayers way more than that to house someone in jail. "Public safety tells us that we shouldn’t keep people in detention before they’re even convicted who are not dangerous simply because they don’t have enough money to post a bail."
The measure has seen pretty widespread support, but the state’s bail bondsmen are against it, saying they’re concerned it would mean criminals are not being penalized after violating the law. Gerald Madrid, the president of the New Mexico Bail Bond Association, said he's worried about a lack of specificity in the language of the amendment. "There’s nothing that says how many times a person can use that excuse, that I’m poor / indigent—can they do it 10 times and it works? It doesn’t say what crimes would be covered."
He added that he doesn’t object to keeping dangerous folks locked up. But the legislation simultaneously lets other criminals off easy with no strings attached. "We believe it will open the floodgates," he said. "It encourages crime. It’s ripe for abuse, because everybody in jail is going to tell the next guy, ‘Hey just tell the judge you’re poor and they got to let you go.’ "
SJR 1 has already cleared the Senate and two House committees. So if it’s approved by the House of Representatives without changes before the session ends next week, the question will be put to voters in November. This is a joint resolution, so it doesn’t require the governor’s signature.