State Supreme Court Justice Charles Daniels, departing from the tradition of judicial impartiality, joined with state legislators Wednesday to advocate for what he called the most important criminal justice reform of his eight years on the bench.
Daniels is supporting a two-pronged bill by a pair of Democrats that he says would better protect the public while advancing the cause of social justice. One part of the bill would give judges authority to deny bail to defendants who they determine to be dangerous. The second component would allow judges to release prisoners who aren’t a threat to anyone but are incarcerated because they don’t have the money to make bail.
The bill, carried by Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, and Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, would amend the state Constitution to make both changes possible. If the proposal is approved by the Senate and the House of Representatives, it would go before voters next November.
In a bipartisan decision, members of the Senate Rules Committee voted 9-1 Wednesday to move the bill forward. Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, cast the dissenting vote, saying he was concerned that people without a substantial criminal record could be incarcerated without bail.
In response, Daniels said the bill would make court rulings about bail fairer. Judges now must make dishonest decisions because state law requires that they set bail in almost every case. The exception is for defendants charged with a capital crime, such as the killing of a police officer.
So, Daniels said, if a judge now believes a defendant is dangerous, he or she often will set extraordinarily high bail of $650,000 or even $1 million in hopes of keeping the suspect incarcerated.
Under questioning by Sen. Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque, Daniels said he would remove himself from hearing any court challenges to the bill if it becomes law.
Daniels said the second part of the amendment is just as important as the first. It would enable judges to unclog county jails where many low-income defendants arrested in minor cases must be housed and fed because they don’t have enough money to make bail.
Bail bond companies and their lobbyists were the only members of the public who testified against the bill Wednesday. The companies fear a financial loss if certain defendants can get out of jail by posting minimal bail or are released on their promise to return for court appearances.
Maestas, a former prosecutor, provided a counter argument. “Jails should be for violent people, not for poor people, unless of course those poor people are violent,” he said.
Prosecutors, defense attorneys, district judges, county government executives and the ACLU of New Mexico testified in favor of the constitutional amendment.
District Attorney Rick Tedrow of San Juan County called it “a just and proper bill.” His colleagues in the defense bar said county governments have been hit by seven-figure civil judgments, including one for $22 million in Doña Ana County, for failing to provide adequate medical care for inmates held for long stretches on minor charges.
Curry County Commissioner Wendell Bostwick said in an interview that his jail now has an ailing inmate who cannot make bail. So the county must transport the prisoner twice a week from Clovis to Albuquerque so he can have dialysis. It’s 220 miles each way. Bostwick said the man need not be in jail, and Bostwick worries about his county being held liable if the prisoner’s kidney disease worsens.
A fiscal analysis of the bill by the legislative staff projects that pretrial release of jail inmates who aren’t dangerous would save taxpayers $18 million annually. Bostwick said the bill also would make county governments less vulnerable to lawsuits because they wouldn’t have to warehouse inmates who aren’t dangerous.
Two House members from Albuquerque, Democratic Rep. Patricio Ruiloba and Republican Rep. David Adkins, have introduced an alternative constitutional amendment that would allow judges to deny bail if they consider a defendant dangerous. Their bill makes no provision for judges to release low-income defendants without bail. The bail bonds industry is backing the bill by Ruiloba and Adkins.