In this file photo, Bernalillo County District Attorney Raúl Torrez talks with Nicole Chavez, right, and other family members of crime victims before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing at the state Capitol. He is among the supporters of a bill to change New Mexico’s pretrial detention laws. (Eddie Moore/)
SANTA FE — A proposal to make it easier to hold more criminal defendants in jail before trial survived its first legislative vote Friday and is still alive, at least for now.
The legislation, House Bill 5, faced bipartisan skepticism in a two-hour hearing Friday but cleared a House committee on a 7-2 vote after several members said they wanted to keep the proposal moving while amendments are considered.
The move came after Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller joined police and prosecutors in asking lawmakers for help addressing crime in New Mexico’s largest city.
No member of the House Government, Elections and Indian Affairs Committee fully embraced the proposal, but they also expressed reluctance to reject it outright.
“I know we have to do something. We are in a real mess,” Rep. Greg Nibert, R-Roswell, said. But “we don’t need legislation that’s just going to end up in the courts and end up overturned due to constitutional grounds.”
The proposal heads next to the House Judiciary Committee.
Rep. Marian Matthews, an Albuquerque Democrat and co-sponsor of the bill, said she is willing to consider changes as the proposal moves to its next committee.
But she also rejected the contention by Nibert and others that the proposal may run afoul of the state Constitution, which guarantees the right to bail in some circumstances.
The legislation is a priority of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, 2nd Judicial District Attorney Raul Torrez and Keller. It’s been vigorously opposed by public defenders and others.
Keller, a former state senator, said the people of Albuquerque are “screaming” for help and that lawmakers should keep the bill alive while evaluating the constitutional questions. Keeping more people behind bars before trial, he said, will help slow the “revolving door” of criminal suspects who cycle in and out of jail.
“We are arresting people over and over and over,” Keller said. “There are lives at stake.”
Voting in favor of advancing the bill were four Democrats and three Republicans. The two dissenting votes came from Democratic Reps. Daymon Ely of Corrales and Gail Chasey of Albuquerque.
Chasey is chairwoman of the House Judiciary Committee, putting her in a powerful position to shape the fate of the bill.
She noted that a recent Legislative Finance Committee report found that low arrest, prosecution and conviction rates may have contributed more to Bernalillo County’s crime problem than releasing defendants awaiting trial.
“I just hope we actually have a solution that isn’t ignoring the reality and the data we have now,” Chasey said.
The proposed pretrial detention bill would create a rebuttable assumption of dangerousness for defendants charged with certain violent crimes, including murder, child abuse and assault on a peace officer.
If prosecutors file detention motions in those cases and are able to meet the probable cause standard for the crime, the defendants would then have to convince a judge why they should not be held in jail until trial under the assumption they pose a “danger to any other person or to the community.”