ALBUQUERQUE – New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is aiming to put a wedge in the revolving door that many have blamed for persistent violent crime and record homicides in the state’s largest city.
The Democratic governor joined other elected leaders in Albuquerque on Thursday to highlight a few of the public safety proposals that will be pushed during the legislative session that begins Tuesday. The officials stood in front of a mural dedicated to victims of gun violence as they acknowledged that residents around the state are fed up.
“This is not just an Albuquerque issue. This is a state issue. This is a neighborhood-by-neighborhood, community-by-community issue. New Mexico can and will do better,” the governor said.
The measures include enhanced penalties for some crimes and a shift in New Mexico’s pretrial detention system that supporters claim would ensure the most dangerous defendants accused of murder, rape or other violent crimes remain behind bars pending trial.
Lujan Grisham said the burden would be placed on defendants, rather than prosecutors, to prove they would not be a danger to the community if granted pretrial release.
Critics, including defense attorneys and public defenders, have raised concerns that the change would erode the checks and balances of the current system and would give prosecutors more power to detain people. They have pointed to efforts to narrow the presumptions used to hold defendants at the federal level as well as data from criminal cases in the Albuquerque area that showed a smaller share of those charged with rebuttable presumption offenses were arrested for a new crime while released.
Bennett Baur, the state’s chief public defender, said in a statement that evidence shows people on pretrial release are not a significant cause of the increase in violent crime and that incarcerating more people before trial will further harm New Mexico communities.
“I’m concerned that the focus is all on police, prosecutors and punishment, and seems to ignore the effects that the proposals would have on the courts, public defenders, jails and prisons, and on what happens when anyone accused of a crime is eventually released,” he said.
Republican Rep. Bill Rehm of Albuquerque, a retired police officer who has been working on the issue for more than a decade and supports the proposed legislation, described it as narrow and surgical to address the most violent offenders.
In 2017, New Mexico joined a growing number of states in adopting risk-based approaches to releasing defendants that put less emphasis on financial assurances, after voters approved a constitutional amendment the previous year to allow judges to deny bail to defendants considered extremely dangerous. The constitutional amendment also granted pretrial release to those who are not considered a threat but remain in jail because they can’t afford bail.
The public has been frustrated with the outcome, and politicians have acknowledged that changes need to be made in the pretrial justice system.
District Attorney Raúl Torrez, who oversees prosecutors in New Mexico’s busiest judicial district in Albuquerque, called the upcoming legislative session an opportunity to “fix what is broken.”
Torrez said the presumption standards that are being proposed would have no effect on nonviolent, low-level offenders or the types of people who authorities believe can be safely monitored and provided resources to get them out of the criminal justice system.
The revolving nature of the system has left Torrez prosecuting one person for multiple events, rather than just one. He said that strains resources and that having deterrents throughout the process could help address that on the front end.
“We have to send a signal right away,” he said.
When asked whether New Mexico could legislate its way out of the crime problem, Lujan Grisham said that changing human behavior and how people treat one another is a difficult effort.
“But if you don’t have guardrails, you’re also signaling that it’s everyone for themselves and we aren’t going to do anything collectively that we know can have an impact. You have to lead by example and set the standards that this is intolerable what is occurring,” she said.
Lujan Grisham said working across branches of government and jurisdictions can produce results. She pointed to a partnership between Albuquerque police and State Police that netted hundreds of arrests and resulted in a significant drop in auto thefts.
“You have to have the resources, the tools and a strategy,” she said. “We’re going to keep doing that.”