Amendment to expand pretrial detention advances in House

Rep. Andrea Reeb, R-Clovis, speaks to visitors Wednesday at the New Mexico House of Representatives before the chamber begins its work for the day. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE — Legislation to put more defendants on trial for pre-trial detention barely survived its first test in the House of Representatives on Wednesday, as New Mexico lawmakers weighed strategies to combat the state’s high violent crime rate.

The proposal, House Joint Resolution 9, would urge voters to amend the state constitution to broaden the criteria for detaining people while they await trial.

Democrats on the House Government, Elections and Indian Affairs Committee declined to recommend passage of the measure, but a 5-2 bipartisan majority agreed to pass it without a recommendation.

The mixed result keeps the proposal alive for now, but reflects disagreement among Democrats — who have a large majority in each chamber — over proposals to revise New Mexico’s pre-trial detention law.

Democratic lawmakers earlier this week were firmer on, and repeatedly opposed, a series of crime bills sponsored by Republican Rep. Bill Rehm of Albuquerque.

Rehm’s proposals included measures to expand the state’s three-strike law, increase penalties for certain felonies, and criminalize carrying a firearm while in a drug deal.

But the pre-trial detention amendment is still progressing for the time being.

State Rep. Andrea Reeb, a Clovis Republican and prosecutor, urged lawmakers to back the measure to put the question squarely in front of voters. A voter-approved bail change seven years ago had unintended repercussions, she said, allowing too many repeat offenders to cycle in and out of prison.

“I truly believe it’s time to send this back to voters,” Reeb said.

However, opponents warned against detaining more people before sentencing. It could overflow county jails and damage the lives of innocent people, they said.

“One of the fundamental tenets of our justice system is that you are innocent until proven guilty,” said Rikki-Lee Chavez of the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association.

House Majority Leader Gail Chasey, D-Albuquerque, said she was not convinced a constitutional change was necessary. She noted that lawmakers are considering an analytical tool to help judges set release terms, among other potential crime-fighting strategies.

“I wonder if we could untie the judges’ hands in some other way,” Chasey said.

But the proposal moved forward without recommendation, drawing support from Democrats Charlotte Little of Albuquerque and Doreen Wonda Johnson of Church Rock, and Republicans John Block of Alamogordo, Bill Rehm of Albuquerque and Martin Zamora of Clovis.

Chasey and Democrat Janelle Anyanonu of Albuquerque voted no.

Rehm is co-sponsoring the proposed change with Reeb.

The next planned target of the proposal is the House Judiciary Committee.

Under the amendment, courts could refuse bail if no release terms would reasonably ensure the person’s appearance at future court hearings. Denial is now only allowed on the basis of public safety.

The proposed amendment would also remove the requirement that pre-trial detention be reserved only for those charged with a crime.

Its advancement came a week after Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham urged lawmakers to find common ground to address New Mexico’s high rate of violent crime. Albuquerque has hit a record high for homicides two years in a row.

discarded ideas

Proposals to tighten criminal sanctions meet early resistance in this session.

Democrats argue they are generally doing little to deter crime while increasing prison costs. But they have accepted harsher penalties in some cases.

One of Rehm’s proposals this week — targeting the carrying of a gun in drug trafficking — sparked a particularly heated debate before the House Consumer and Public Affairs Committee.

Attorney Kim Chavez Cook, speaking on behalf of the Public Defender’s Law Firm and the Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, said the proposal was not necessary because using a firearm in a drug transaction would already carry increased penalties.

It would have no deterrent value, she said, for someone already breaking the law in a drug deal.

“The presence of a gun is often, citingly, ‘necessary’ for these people in these situations to protect themselves because being involved in a drug transaction is an inherently dangerous environment,” said Chavez Cook.

But Rehm, a retired sheriff’s captain, said longer prison sentences are a sensible crime-fighting strategy.

The rejection of his bills shows that Democratic members of the House Consumers and Public Affairs Committee have “little concern for improving public safety in meaningful ways.”

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