State Sen. Pat Woods said he’d try to submit a bill during the New Mexico Legislature’s upcoming session in January to reform the judicial’s system’s so-called “catch-and-release” bail system for criminal suspects.
Woods, a Republican from Broadview whose District 7 includes Quay County, made the pledge while participating in an videoconference roundtable last week by the Quay County Health Council’s Intimate Partner Task Force committee in conjunction with Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Several local law-enforcement officials also participated in the roundtable.
The New Mexico Supreme Court a few years ago, citing the U.S. Constitution, set up new guidelines about bail for criminal suspects. In short, the high court forbid the incarceration of poor people because of their inability to make bail.
The no-bail guidelines are meant for nonviolent crimes and misdemeanors. But Tucumcari Police officer Daniel Lopez said he thought victims of domestic violence and the community still are endangered.
“They’re getting let off,” he said of such suspects.
Logan Police Chief Rodney Paris said one complication of domestic violence is victims often don’t cooperate and “look forward to the make-up” with their abusers. He said such crimes need a period of incarceration so law enforcement can more effectively prosecute the case and victims can gain more clarity.
“We need to buy a little time so we can protect the victims,” Paris said. “It’s not allowing us to break that cycle.”
Magistrate Judge Timothy O’Quinn, acknowledging the problem, said the judicial guidelines make it difficult to hold any suspect “for any reason.”
District Attorney Tim Rose said the state Supreme Court recently issued new rules that go into effect this month but “don’t do much” to address the problems they discussed.
Rose said under current guidelines, suspects often are arraigned and released before his prosecutors even know about such cases. He said the speed to which suspects are released without bail has increased during the COVID-19 pandemic to avoid jail crowding.
Rose also noted domestic-violence crimes always are misdemeanors unless the suspect uses a deadly weapon such as a gun or knife.
Woods said the no-bail guidelines appear to have been enacted with good intentions, but “put into place, it sounds like it’s not working very well. Having a cooling-off period sounds like common sense to me.”
“It seems like DA offices and police are left out” of the discussion, Woods said. “I don’t think the right voices are getting the attention. There has to be some discretion with judges.”
Woods acknowledged he lacked the legal expertise to draft a bill to address catch-and-release and needed help from lawyers or prosecutors to do so.
Rose said he and other district attorneys could assist on such a matter. Woods said the Legislative Council Service also could put together the language for such a bill, and he would call the New Mexico Supreme Court’s lone Republican justice for advice.
Woods said the Legislature, noting the separation of powers, loathes to interfere with judicial matters. He said a bill by him also faces tough sledding in the Democratic-controlled Roundhouse.
But he said public dissatisfaction about the no-bail program, plus reporting by the state’s newspapers, still are “a powerful instrument” that could sway lawmakers to reform.
“We need to show their law is not working,” Woods said.
Woods indicated public dissatisfaction with lawmakers and the judicial system grew during a time when people could be fined $100 for not wearing a mask during the pandemic, while anti-racism protesters who pulled down a historic obelisk in the middle of the Santa Fe Plaza faced no prosecution from local officials.
Woods said he also could propose a constitutional amendment to address the no-bail issue, but that wouldn’t be voted on for two years. Regardless, such a plan could “bring discussion around” about the law’s shortcomings, he said.