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New Mexico chief justice urges caution with bail law reform

Judiciary-New Mexico
Morgan Lee/AP
/
AP
Supreme Court Chief Justice C. Shannon Bacon delivers a State of the Judiciary speech to a joint session of the New Mexico Legislature in Santa Fe, N.M., on Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2023. Bacon urged legislators to be cautious and remember the principle of innocence until proven guilty as they consider toughening the state's bail laws in response to violent crime. (AP Photo/Morgan Lee)

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico's top judicial official urged state legislators Tuesday to be cautious and remember the principle of innocence until proven guilty as they consider toughening the state's bail laws in response to violent crime.

Supreme Court Chief Justice C. Shannon Bacon delivered a State of the Judiciary speech to a joint session of the New Mexico Legislature — the first in several years. She outlined efforts to streamline court procedures to keep law enforcement officers in communities and on the streets, as lawmakers grapple with public frustration over violent crime, including a record-setting spate of homicides in Albuquerque.

She also recalled advances in public safety that came with New Mexico's overhaul of its pretrial detention system, starting in 2017, to eliminate money-bail and ensure dangerous individuals can be jailed pending trial.

"With the elimination of money-bail, judges now have the ability to assess dangerousness, something they could not do before," Bacon said. In Albuquerque and "Bernalillo County, this has resulted in the detention of over 3,000 defendants pending trial. Something that could not happen before."

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and some legislators from both political parties have voiced support for changes that would make it easier to keep certain criminal defendants in jail while awaiting trial. Currently, people charged with a felony can be held without bond only if prosecutors can persuade a judge that no conditions of release would protect the public, or that a defendant is unlikely to appear in court.

An unsuccessful bill last year would have created a presumption that defendants should be held if they are charged with a serious violent offense, such as crimes involving a firearm.

But Bacon also cautioned against rash changes to the state bail system, invoking the wrongful 2019 detention of a 17-year-old high school student in a case of mistaken identity that was dismissed after efforts by prosecutors to deny pre-trial release.

"We must remember why our Constitution protects the rights of every person, including those accused of crime," Bacon said.

Democratic Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth says he doesn't support a major expansion of pretrial detentions.

"I do think there's a number of things on the crime front we need to do," Wirth told The Associated Press. "I don't support adding new presumptions that I think would result in thousands of people being held that don't need to be held."

Democratic state Rep. Dayan Hochman-Vigil of Albuquerque introduced a bill that would modestly change the way judges assess a defendant's risk to the community.

Republicans in the legislative minority are proposing a constitutional amendment that would expand possible pre-trial detention without bail to crimes beyond felonies. Another GOP-sponsored bill would revive money bail in limited instances and prohibit state courts from relying on analytic tools to judge the risk of a defendant fleeing justice.