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Voters changed bail system for good reason

Walt Rubel


The old system of cash bonds that was in place before voters passed a constitutional amendment in 2016 reforming the bail system was not equal justice under the law.

It included a schedule that set the amount of bond for each offense. Those who could pay the bond stayed out of jail; those who couldn’t pay the bond went to jail.

Let’s say a big company held a party where folks had too much to drink and then drove off. On the way home, the company president, manager and janitor all get arrested for the same offense. The president pays the bond and never notices the money that’s missing. The manager pays the bond, but has to cancel the family vacation to do so.

The janitor goes to jail. Our county jails were filled with people who had yet to be convicted of anything.

One of them was Stephen Slevin. He was awarded $22 million, later reduced to $15.5 million, by a federal court in 2013 after being held in the Dona Ana County Jail for 22 months despite never having his day in court.

Prosecutors and community leaders began complaining soon after the reform was passed that it went too far. And last year, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham joined them. She supported legislation co-sponsored by Democratic Sen. Linda Lopez that would change the burden of proof required to keep people in jail before a conviction.

It involves the legal theory of rebuttable presumption, which means a judge goes into a case with the presumption that Side A will prevail unless Side B is able to provide enough evidence to change that presumption.

Under the 2016 law, rebuttable presumption is on the side of defendants.

Lopez’s bill would have changed that for those charged with serious violent crimes or who committed crimes while on parole or probation. And, maybe that makes sense. Any new law should be reviewed after a few years to see if changes are needed.

But, the constitutional amendment on bail reform passed in 2016 is not the cause for a worsening crime problem in Las Cruces tied to a growing homeless population that clearly includes some criminal elements. And, tweaking the bail system will not solve what is an incredibly complex problem being faced by communities throughout the country.

During a recent City Council meeting, Police Chief Miguel Dominguez, Mayor Ken Miyagishima and business leaders all pointed the finger at bail reform as being the root of all evil. That conveniently takes the burden off them and grossly oversimplifies the problem.

Business owners have raised valid concerns that need to be addressed. People committing acts of vandalism should be arrested, and customers should be able to feel safe and secure when doing business at local stores.

Police and courts clearly have an important role to play in solving the problem, and judges should take these cases seriously. But any comprehensive solution must also include affordable housing, job training, child care and mental health services.

Most Las Cruces residents rightly take pride in the services that are available here for the homeless. And yet, it’s not enough. It will never be enough. The effort to lift up those who have fallen behind is never-ending.

Police need the authority to identify those breaking the law and have them taken off the streets. But we can’t go back to the bad old days when poor people languished in county jail for crimes they had not been convicted of.

Walter Rubel can be reached at waltrubel@gmail.com.