Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

Las Cruces police chief criticizes bail reform at crime forum

LAS CRUCES – During a public forum to address business owners’ concerns about crime and unhoused people, Las Cruces’ police chief criticized bail reform measures and called for more nonviolent offenders to be held in jail for longer.

“We need your support to make sure that we do hold these folks accountable, we do stick them in jail and we’d like to keep them in jail and end this revolving door that the detention center is dealing with right now,” Las Cruces Police Chief Miguel Dominguez said.

The Las Cruces Association of Realtors, Las Cruces Home Builders Association and Greater Las Cruces Chamber of Commerce convened the public forum on Thursday, June 2, to allow city officials and law enforcement the chance to respond to theft, vandalism and property damage experienced by the city’s business community.

Attendees were critical of bail reform, which they dubbed a “catch and release” criminal justice system that they argued enabled criminal activity in the area. One attendee said, “It is easy to be a criminal in Las Cruces.”

In 2016, New Mexico voters overwhelmingly passed a constitutional amendment granting pretrial release to defendants who are not considered a threat but remain jailed because they cannot afford to post bail.

The current system works like this: At any point (but typically right after a defendant has been arrested), prosecutors can file a motion for pre-trial detention. In their motion, the prosecutor argues why they believe the defendant is dangerous and why no conditions of release will assure that the public remains safe.

The issue then goes before a district court judge. Prosecutors and defense attorneys then argue about if the defendant is dangerous and what, if any, release conditions could assure public safety.

A judge then rules on whether prosecutors met the burden of proof by a standard of clear and convincing evidence. The judge then determines if the defendant is dangerous. If the judge finds the defendant is dangerous, then the judge decides if there are any conditions, including bond, which would ensure public safety.

According to statistics provided by the 3rd Judicial District Attorney’s office, judges rejected about 62 percent of the prosecutor’s requests for pretrial detention in 2021. The same statistics showed the judges jailed all defendants accused of murder in 2021.

Past Reporting:What would the pretrial detention bill mean for Doña Ana County?

The reform came under fire from prosecutors, most notably Albuquerque District Attorney Raul Torrez. Opponents of the reform said that the new system created a revolving door of crime, allowing accused people to leave jail and commit new crimes, only for the cycle to repeat. However, an analysis by the state’s Legislative Finance Committee found that most serious violent offenses would not have been prevented by the reforms, which ultimately failed to become law.

Bail reform ‘hampered a lot of what we can do’

Dominguez took the floor at times to call on community members to increase their support for the police and spoke against bail reform measures.

“Bail reform really, really hampered a lot of what we can do,” Dominguez said. “We take them to jail and … by the time we fingerprint them and book them, by the time your officer pulls out of the sally port, they’re walking out the front door.”

Sometimes, people charged with a misdemeanor re-offend after being let out — they either commit another misdemeanor or, in rare cases, a far worse crime.

During the forum, Dominguez was critical of this system, pointing to Joel Arciniega-Saenz, who was charged with murder in 2021 after police accused him of decapitating a man in Apodaca Park. Court records show that Arciniega-Saenz was out on an unsecured bond, meaning he’d only have to pay the bond if he violated his release conditions, stemming from an accusation he burglarized and vandalized some local businesses.

To claim support for the police has fallen, Dominguez said assaults against the city’s officers are about 42 percent higher than they have been in the past few years.

“The assault on our officers are out of control,” the chief said. “Our officers are getting assaulted a lot more than they used to.”

The chief came under fire by the Las Cruces Police Officer’s Association last month, after the union accused departmental leadership of not supporting officers.

Mayor Pro Tempore Kasandra Gandara, who represents District 1 on the city council, also addressed attendees. She said compassion and accountability need to go hand in hand when approaching the issue of crime and homelessness. She said many times people have lasting trauma from past experiences that affect the way they behave now.

“What we’re experiencing today is systemic in nature,” Gandara said.

Gandara said she fully supports the police and laid out some city programs meant to address crime and homelessness — some of which have yet to begin — such as the Mano y Mano Day Labor program run through the Mesilla Valley Community of Hope, an anti-crime and poverty reduction program called Lift Up Las Cruces, a mobile crisis intervention team run through the city’s fire department and a program called Las Cruces Cares, which seeks to establish better relationships between police and businesses.

Michael McDevitt is a city and county government reporter for the Sun News. He can be reached at 575-202-3205, [email protected] or @MikeMcDTweets on Twitter. Justin Garcia is a public safety reporter covering crime, courts and police. He can be reached via email at JE [email protected]

Others are reading:

Comments are closed.