ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The Drug Policy Alliance and others on Friday joined in support of bail reforms in New Mexico, saying there’s a need for more risk assessment tools to help judges determine whether defendants should be detained or released pending trial.
Officials with the alliance, the Laura and John Arnold Foundation and the Rio Grande Foundation gathered in Albuquerque to talk about protecting the fundamental principles of New Mexico’s bail reform initiative as the state Supreme Court considers possible changes to the rules that were hashed out earlier this year for implementing the new system.
District attorneys from across the state this week proposed several changes to the rules, asking that they include more details about what judges can consider when assessing a defendant’s risk to the community if released.
The recommendations also suggest that the courts not require evidence in any particular form for pretrial detention hearings. The prosecutors have said inconsistent interpretations of the rule have effectively turned such hearings into mini-trials, lasting hours in some cases and exacerbating an already burdensome caseload.
Policy experts with the Drug Policy Alliance and the foundations acknowledged the prosecutors’ concerns with the process and said more changes might be needed as the rules have been in effect for only three months. Still, they argue that New Mexico is on the right track in shifting from a money-bail system to one focused more on balancing public safety and fairness.
Matt Alsdorf, vice president of criminal justice with the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, said the basic question the judicial system needs to answer is what risks a defendant poses, not how much money he or she has.
He said he’s encouraged about the discussions and debate taking shape across the state with regard to how best to accomplish the goals set out by the constitutional amendment that mandated the change in New Mexico’s bail system.
Voters overwhelmingly supported the aim of keeping dangerous defendants in custody pending trial, while allowing for the release of nonviolent suspects who might otherwise languish in jail because they cannot afford bail.
Alsdorf said there’s no perfect system because crime trends, policing priorities and pretrial services vary vastly from county to county and state to state and that officials should be open to constant analysis and adjustment.
“Everyone, I think, fundamentally has the same objective of protecting public safety and fairness and not wasting public resources,” he said.
Alsdorf and the others pointed to similar reforms in New Jersey, Kentucky and jurisdictions in North Carolina and Ohio. In Lucas County, Ohio, they noted changes in 2015 that followed a federal court order mandating the county cap jail population, saying the percentage of pretrial defendants arrested for other crimes while out on release was cut in half to 10 percent under a new system that used risk assessments.
Paul Gessing, president of the Albuquerque-based think tank Rio Grande Foundation, said Lucas County was able to reduce spending on pretrial detention of low-level, nonviolent offenders with the changes.
“No system will ever be perfect. These are big and complicated changes,” he said. “We will work to find opportunities to improve even this new pretrial release system, but the data we’ve cited shows risk assessment tools are far superior to systems predicated entirely on money.”
The district attorneys also have said making improvements in the process could result in a savings for taxpayers. Barring any changes, they plan to ask the state for additional money to hire more attorneys to handle the increasing workload that has stemmed from the bail reforms.