- Associated Press - Monday, February 15, 2016

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) - The New Mexico House of Representatives on Monday endorsed an overhaul of the state’s bail system designed to keep the most dangerous defendants behind bars and make sure poor, nonviolent suspects don’t languish in jail.

The House approved the proposed constitutional amendment 69-0. It would allow judges to deny bail to certain defendants, while granting pretrial release to those who aren’t considered a danger but remain in jail because they can’t afford bail.

The Senate must vote on recent changes to the constitutional amendment before it can go to a statewide vote in November for approval.

The state constitution currently guarantees people the opportunity to get out of jail before trial, with the narrow exception of those accused of the most serious felonies. Critics say that routinely allows violent defendants out on the streets.

The bail bond industry dropped its opposition after a requirement was added that defendants who cannot afford bail must file a motion for a court hearing to request relief. Language also was added clarifying that those eligible for release because they can’t afford bail must not pose a flight risk.

“If someone is claiming indigency, they have to motion the court, they have to get before the court, and the court has to find that they truly lack the ability to pay,” said Majority House Floor Leader Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque.

The changes were not welcomed by all. The New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association and American Civil Liberties Union dropped their support.

“The original bill addressed the disparity and fundamental unfairness that allows the wealthy to post a bond while the common citizen sits in jail waiting for a trail,” said Matt Coyte, president of the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, in statement. “This new version no longer holds true to that goal.”

A Legislative Finance Committee analysis estimated the amendment would save taxpayers almost $19 million per year by jailing significantly fewer non-dangerous defendants.

The cost of imprisoning more dangerous defendants for longer as they await trial would cost $967,000 each year.

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