- Associated Press - Thursday, August 27, 2015

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - A New Mexico lawmaker called the state’s bail system “broken” Thursday as he announced he would introduce a proposed constitutional amendment for reform in the upcoming legislative session that starts in January.

The proposal from Sen. Peter Wirth, a Santa Fe Democrat who serves on the Senate Judiciary Committee, will put forward two key reforms - one of which would allow judges to deny bail before trial for the most high-risk, dangerous defendants. The other would grant pre-trial release of low-risk defendants who are being held simply because they do not have the means to make bond.

“Defendants should never be denied bail solely because they cannot pay,” Wirth said in a written statement. “And judges should not have to grant bail when the evidence clearly demonstrates a defendant is a flight risk or danger to society. This constitutional amendment strikes the correct balance.”

Gerald Madrid, the president of the New Mexico Bail Bond Association, disagreed. He said Wirth’s proposed amendment would negatively affect business for some 240 bondsmen in the state and would minimize what may qualify as low-level offenses, such as shoplifting or selling marijuana.

“These low-risk offenders collectively cause a lot of damage in the community,” Madrid said. “And many of these guys have extensive criminal histories. It’s multiple misdemeanors that amount to damage for the community.”

Wirth’s proposal follows the recommendations of a special 18-member committee of judges, lawyers and other legal experts that was created earlier this year by the New Mexico Supreme Court.

Arthur Pepin, director of the state’s administrative office of the courts, said all five justices have endorsed the amendment proposal.

State court officials say current constitutional provisions call for the release of all defendants who are able to make the bail amount set for their specific crime, meaning judges cannot impose high bonds for criminal defendants solely on the seriousness of the crime - something Leo Romero, committee chairman and former University of New Mexico Law School dean, said was happening with mixed outcome.

“We were discovering the courts were issuing high bonds as a means of detaining people - not authorized under the constitution,” Romero said. “Now, sometimes they misjudge that and a very dangerous defendant with resources, maybe with drug backing or whatever, might have had the resources to post that money bond.”

And in some cases, those defendants would likely fail to make their next court appearance, he said.

If approved by the Legislature, the proposed constitutional measure would go before voters in November 2016.

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