Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Senate Committee Blocks Pretrial Detention Bill


By Robert Nott The Santa Fe New Mexican

A key "tough-on-crime" initiative supported by Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham hit a roadblock Monday.

Members of the Senate Health and Public Affairs Committee voted 5-3 to table Senate Bill 189, which would make a major change to the state's pretrial detention process for defendants suspected of certain violent crimes. Under the measure, a defendant would have to prove to a judge they are not at risk of committing further violence if they are allowed to remain free until their trial.

It is one of the most contentious bills in this year's legislative session, despite its bipartisan support.

Republicans have long pushed for similar legislation, arguing the current system, in which prosecutors must show evidence a defendant poses too great a danger to be released, has led to some heinous crimes by repeat offenders.

SB 189 is one of several crime reform bills pushed by the governor; so far, none has cleared a chamber of the Legislature.

One of the bill's sponsors, Sen. Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque, told committee members, "This issue has brought us together. That symbolizes how serious a concern this is." 

But many lawmakers on the committee were not convinced keeping more defendants jailed until trial would have much of an effect when it comes to the state's rising rates of violent crime.

Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, said people in the state "want something done" about crime, but SB 189 "is not it."

The legislation, as well as the identical House Bill 5, which is expected to be heard this week in the House Judiciary Committee sometime, has spotlighted the tricky intersection where public safety can collide with residents' rights.

Critics say the measure could erode constitutional rights, a point made by Sen. Jacob Candelaria, I-Albuquerque.

"The power this bill would give prosecutors is terrifying to me," he said.

Chief Deputy District Attorney James Grayson of the 2nd Judicial District Attorney's Office, who testified in favor of the bill, noted judges would still have the final say on whether defendants remain jailed.

"These are violent criminals who commit violent crimes, and when they are released, they commit more violent crimes," he said.

The bill's supporters point to several high-profile crimes committed by people awaiting trial, including Darian Bashir, who recently was found guilty of fatally shooting UNM baseball player Jackson Weller in 2019. Bashir had a history of criminal violence, and at the time of Weller’s death, he was on a supervisory release plan while awaiting trial on a charge of shooting an assault weapon from a car at another vehicle.

Angel Alire told the committee the bill is necessary to ensure another innocent person does not die at the hands of a violent offender awaiting trial. Her son Devon Heyborne was killed in April in Albuquerque. The suspect is a teen who had been released before his trial in another case.

The state's current pretrial release policy "is not working and because of it my son is dead," Alire said.


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