- Associated Press - Thursday, August 13, 2015

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - A special panel of judges, lawyers and other legal experts on Thursday recommended that New Mexico’s highest court support a constitutional amendment to give judges the option to order the most dangerous, violent criminal defendants held in jail pending trial with no bond.

The committee voted during a meeting in Albuquerque to send a letter outlining its recommendation to the state Supreme Court, marking the first substantial step in a process that could lead to changes in the way bail bond schedules are used in New Mexico.

Still, any constitutional amendment would have to get through the state Legislature and then be put before the voters.

Former University of New Mexico Law School Dean Leo Romero, the chairman of the committee, acknowledged there’s a long way to go. But he pointed out that a number of states, the District of Columbia and the federal court system already give judges the option to hold people without bond or any other form of pre-trial release.

“In New Mexico, because it has a constitutional right to bail, judges don’t have that authority right now. We’d like to give them the authority in appropriate cases with appropriate safeguards for individuals,” Romero said.

The committee’s work stems from a landmark ruling issued by the state Supreme Court last fall in the case of an Albuquerque man charged with murder who remained in jail awaiting trial for more than two years because he couldn’t afford a $250,000 bail bond.

The court ruled that judges can’t impose high bail bond requirements for criminal defendants solely on the seriousness of the crime. The justices found that a district court judge failed to follow state law requiring the “least restrictive” pre-trial release conditions to ensure the safety of others and assure a defendant will appear later in court.

The court had said wealth determines whether someone remains in jail if bond is based solely on the severity of the crime rather than factors outlined in law such as a defendant’s criminal history.

The court formed the ad hoc committee earlier this year and charged its members - who range from judges and prosecutors to defense attorneys and bail bondsmen - with submitting a report and recommendations regarding the use of bail schedules by the end of August.

Aside from the recommendation regarding a constitutional amendment, the panel is also discussing changes to other pre-trial release rules.

The proposed changes would essentially replace jailhouse bonds, Romero said. “This rule is still trying to preserve an early release system that is not tied to money and is limited to minor offenses and is limited people who are low risk because this is their first arrest,” he said.

However, other committee members voiced concerns that making the release process easy for first-time offenders would not help to discourage people from offending again and could lead to people not showing up for court.

Certain offenses would not be eligible for early release, such as domestic violence and drunken driving.

The committee is still working on the final language of the proposal.

The committee has also recommended to the court that a repository of criminal histories be created so that judges will have the right tools to accurately assess whether someone is a risk to the community before making decisions about early release.

Some have questioned whether the state has the money to pay for such a clearinghouse.

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