Include Slevin case in bail reform discussion

Nov 28, 2019

Credit Walt Rubel

Commentary: Every discussion of bail reform in New Mexico should include at least a mention of Steven Slevin.

In 2005, Slevin was arrested on charges of auto theft and drunken driving. His attorney says the car wasn’t stolen, but was borrowed from a friend. It was an argument that he never got to make in court.

Slevin suffered from mental illness and was not competent to stand trial. As the wheels of justice were slowing turning, he spent 22 months alone in a padded cell at the Dona Ana County Detention Center in conditions so inhumane that they are hard to comprehend.

Without access to dental care during his confinement, Slevin was forced to pull his own tooth. Without access to showers or clippers, fungus began festering on his skin and his toenails curled under his foot.

He spent nearly two years in jail without being tried or convicted of anything. And then he sued the county.

The jury was so horrified by what it saw and heard that it awarded Slevin $1 million for every month he spent in those horrid conditions, $22 million in all. It was later reduced to $15 million in the final settlement.

There are all kinds of cautionary tales here, about solitary confinement, mental illness and management of the county jail. But also about the cash bond system that New Mexico was operating under at the time.

One of the reasons Slevin was held for 22 months was because he couldn’t pay the bond. If he had the same money then that he has today, thanks to the taxpayers of Dona Ana County, he would have been out of jail that day and, hopefully, getting the care that he needed to be able to stand trial.

And, under the previous system, he wasn’t alone. Throughout the state, poor people were awaiting trial in jail, while those accused of the same crimes, but with the financial means to post bond, were free to live their lives as they prepared for their day in court.

It was an unfair system that the voters of New Mexico wisely changed with a constitutional amendment in 2016. Now, decisions about pretrial detention are based on the defendant’s danger to the community and flight risk, not his or her ability to pay the bail.

U.S. Attorney Bill Barr apparently liked things better the way they were before. During a recent visit to Albuquerque, Barr described the criminal justice system in New Mexico as subpar.

“It’s not doing its job of keeping violent offenders off the streets,” he said.

Republican legislator Bill Rehm, a retired police officer from Albuquerque, said he will introduce legislation in the 2020 session to reform the bail system by requiring that judges consider the seriousness of the charge when determining if a suspect will be released prior to trial. He said he would work with Democrats to find a bipartisan solution.

This is still a fairly new system, and it is appropriate that lawmakers from both parties and the courts work together to ensure that changes are not endangering public safety.

As those discussions are taking place at the Roundhouse next year, I am certain that the name Fabian Gonzales will come up frequently. He was released from jail recently after having been held for more than three years in connection to the death of 10-year-old Victoria Martens.

But the name Steve Slevin should be included in the discussion as well. Lawmakers can’t lose track of why the voters demanded that the system be changed.

Walter Rubel can be reached at