ALBUQUERQUE — Top prosecutors from judicial districts across New Mexico said Thursday the rules adopted by the state Supreme Court for overhauling the bail and pretrial detention system have led to confusion and are draining resources at all levels within the criminal justice system.
Several district attorneys gathered in Albuquerque to discuss proposed changes to the bail reform rules that were implemented in July.
The rules were crafted in response to a constitutional amendment overwhelmingly approved by voters in 2016. The aim was to ensure dangerous defendants remain in custody pending trial, while allowing for the release of nonviolent suspects who might otherwise languish in jail because they cannot afford bail.
The district attorneys argue there’s no uniformity in how the rules are being interpreted in courtrooms across the state. They say the language should be clarified and aligned more closely with how detention hearings work within the federal court system.
John Suggs, the district attorney who oversees cases in Otero and Lincoln counties, said problems stemming from bail reform have been making headlines in the state’s most populous areas with high-profile cases in which offenders are released and then commit new crimes.
He acknowledged that it’s an issue across the state and that prosecutors are having to funnel more resources into lengthy detention hearings.
“We’ve been voicing these objections for some time,” Suggs told reporters. “We all could see this was coming to a head. Unfortunately, now reality is hitting.”
The proposed changes they submitted to the Supreme Court this week include more details about what judges should consider when determining whether a defendant should remain in custody pending trial.
Currently, they said judges in Bernalillo County — the state’s busiest judicial district — are not considering the type of the offense. Meanwhile in Otero County, judges look at the circumstances of the allegations along with a defendant’s previous criminal history.
The recommendations also outline that the courts should not require evidence to be submitted during a pretrial detention hearing. The prosecutors say such a requirement has resulted in detention hearings taking the form of a mini-trial, lasting hours in some cases and exacerbating an already burdensome caseload.
Officials with the Administrative Office of the Courts said Thursday the recommendations will be given appropriate consideration.
It’s not clear when the state Supreme Court will make a final decision.
In Hobbs, District Attorney Dianne Luce said 150 warrants were issued for failure to appear from January through June. Over the three-month period since the rules took effect, she said that number has jumped to 230.
“What that means is that law enforcement is having multiple contacts with the same individuals on new cases,” she said.
In Bernalillo County, District Attorney Raul Torrez said prosecutors have exercised discretion in requesting detention hearings by filing motions in less than 15 percent of eligible felony cases. However, they have been successful only one-third of the time, resulting in a pretrial detention rate of less than 5 percent in a jurisdiction where elected officials and voters are lamenting rising crime.
That detention rate is closer to 74 percent when it comes to federal cases in New Mexico, the prosecutors said.
Rick Tedrow, president of the state district attorneys’ association and head of the prosecutors’ office in San Juan County, said the additional work resulting from the rules also affects public defenders and the courts.
“Right now as the budgets stand, they just don’t support the added work,” he said, indicating that the state will need to pour more money into the system if changes aren’t made, further burdening taxpayers.