COMMENTARY: “The prison-industrial complex and the military-industrial complex are here with us and are multi-billion dollar enterprises. We can make more money off the kid in Compton if he’s a criminal instead of a scholar. It’s business.” – Henry Rollins
I have written many times about the prison-industrial complex in New Mexico and our nation. Millions of dollars go to law-enforcement and the judicial-industrial complex for justice. From the pettiest of crimes to the most pernicious, the judicial system rides herd over thousands of citizens.
Then there are prisons with all of the staffing. Somewhere in all of this money come bail bondsmen. There is something aimed at them that is not a good idea.
This session in the New Mexico Legislature a proposed constitutional amendment, Senate Joint Resolution 1, involving bail reform doesn’t mean what people think. The test is easy. Another bill with the same language except for one provision, House Joint Resolution 13, is being offered and is said to be dead.
The news media and casual observers may not see what is happening but the attorneys in the Legislature certainly do, and they are “game-on” for this windfall. What is the one provision?
That if someone is arrested and goes before a judge, instead of having to post a bond saying they will make their court appearance, they can be released if they are poor and are not violent. For them no bail will be required.
The easy sell on both measures is that judges will have more power to keep violent people in jail without any chance of being released before their trial. That is a big push for a safer New Mexico. Many people are injured because a violent offender reoffends while on bail. The second set of victims naturally feels that the offender should have been kept in jail. So that change in New Mexico constitutional law is needed.
The “more money for defense lawyers” provision in SJR1, which is missing from HJR13, involves that some people are kept in jail when they cannot arrange bail. Sometimes bail is ridiculously low, such as one hundred dollars. Jails spend more than that per day housing those citizens.
What is not being said by anyone but the bail industry spokesmen is that most people who can get bail do so by their relatives or friends coming up with the money and property collateral. Who would put up their house for their child if the alternative is to refuse to do so and their child is released for being poor and unable to afford bail?
When someone is bailed out there are two parties that work together to make sure that person makes their court appointments: the people who provided the money for that person’s release and the bail bondsman. Both have a financial interest in that person doing the right things.
If people are just released on their own recognizance, there is not that pressure. Further, the private enterprise of bail bonds is such that the risk is weighed on each individual. Some people cannot bond out because no bail bondsman will take the risk. That is good to know.
Finally, the real push for this provision is to free up resources from the parents and friends for the defense lawyers. Right now they see the bail as taking money from them since the friends and relatives come up with that money. With no bail required that same money that otherwise would go to bail would be available as extra resources for the lawyers.
With this provision in SJR1 the lawyers see a pot of money glimmering and they assume most people will not think this through. They will just react to the notion of a debtor’s prison where people sit behind bars because they don’t even have a hundred dollars.
I would like to see HJR13 pass and be voted on by citizens in November, but not SJR1. It is making a bad situation worse and funneling more money to lawyers while ending a private enterprise that, minute by minute, looks at the flight risk of each person in our criminal justice system.
Are their abuses? Of course. But that is no reason to make the system worse.
Michael Swickard is a former radio talk show host and has been a columnist for 30 years in a number of New Mexico newspapers.