- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 2, 2016

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) - A proposed constitutional amendment aimed at reforming New Mexico’s bail bond system cleared the state Senate on a 29-9 vote Tuesday.

The measure now heads to the House for consideration, where a similar measure has yet to make it to the floor for a vote.

If approved by lawmakers, the question of whether to give judges the discretion to deny bail to dangerous defendants would be put before voters during the general election in November.

“This has been an issue that has been challenging but I think we’ve come up with a solution. We should give the voters a chance to decide,” said Sen. Peter Wirth, the Santa Fe Democrat who is sponsoring the Senate version.

Unlike the House proposal, Wirth’s measure would also allow judges to grant pretrial release to low-risk defendants who are being held because they are too poor to make bond.

That provision ties in with a national movement away from cash bonds and toward analytics and risk-based decisions. Some lawmakers voiced concerns Tuesday that the bail bond industry would be negatively affected and that such a provision would remove jail time as a deterrent for first-time criminals.

Wirth said the proposal is the result of months of work by a task force of judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, bail bondsmen and others. He said the current system simply hasn’t been working.

The state constitution 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.

Sen. Cisco McSorley, D-Albuquerque, voted in favor of the proposed amendment. He argued that the current system has resulted in financial hardships for counties that have to house low-risk defendants who could otherwise be out working and participating in rehabilitation or substance abuse programs instead of sitting idle behind bars.

“Right now, our counties are bleeding money because far too many people are sitting needlessly in our jails,” he said. “These are criminal colleges. They’re not rehabilitation centers.”

Legislative analysts have said a change in the state constitution has the potential to result in $18 million in annual savings with fewer non-dangerous defendants being held.

State court officials also have estimated that the change would reduce the population of those defendants detained while awaiting trial by 10 percent based on the experience of other states that have adopted similar legislation.

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