Analysts: Bail reform is not driving violent crime in Albuquerque

Memo warns of prolonged detention of innocent people

By: - January 24, 2022 5:49 am

An APD prisoner transport vehicle sits in front of the Bernalillo County Public Safety Center in Downtown Albuquerque in late August, 2021. (Photo by Shelby Kleinhans for Source NM)

N.M. politicians are pushing to jail more people before their trials, but legislative analysts say that’s not likely to put much of a dent in violent crime rates. Little evidence exists to suggest that bail reform is driving violent crime trends in Albuquerque, state legislative staff reported last week.

As lawmakers weigh a change to state law that would make it a defendant’s burden to prove they are not a threat to the community and so don’t have to be jailed while waiting for a hearing, two program evaluators sent a memo Jan. 17 to the head of the Legislative Finance Committee.  

People who are arrested while on pretrial release represent a small fraction of overall crime reported in Albuquerque, according to the memo.

The LFC analyzed crime and arrest data over a three-year period and found that arrests for violent crimes among pretrial defendants made up just 5% of total arrests for violent crimes by the Albuquerque Police Department, meaning people who’ve been released ahead of their day in court are relatively small contributors to the city’s overall violent crime problem.

Making it easier to detain defendants prior to trial would prevent some crime but is unlikely to have a significant effect on overall crime rates.

– Legislative Finance Committee report

The report looked at the potential effect of a previous bill that was similar, if not identical, to the one Republican Rep. Bill Rehm proposed this session: House Bill 5. It states that the bill “may lead to prolonged detention of defendants who are never convicted of the crimes they are accused of.”

(Courtesy of the Legislative Finance Committee)

The findings raise questions about how the measure’s sponsors balance the constitutional rights of people accused of crimes with their stated goal of reducing crime in the state.

Asked to comment on the report’s findings, Rep. Meredith Dixon, a co-sponsor of HB 5, said lawmakers have a responsibility to make sure the people they represent can be safe in their own homes and communities.

“This bill is one tool that we can apply in a targeted and narrow way to prevent the most violent and dangerous criminals from being prematurely released, so they cannot cause more harm while awaiting trial,” Dixon said in a written statement. “I also think it is important to note that this bill is part of a larger, holistic approach to public safety that includes long term investments in our communities and behavioral health to address the root causes of crime.”

Rep. Marian Matthews, arguably the bill’s most prominent sponsor in either chamber, has not yet commented. We will update this story if she does.

The bill’s three other co-sponsors did not respond to requests for comment on the report.

Thousands would be needlessly held

The measure the analysts were reviewing would have led to the unnecessary detention of about 2,400 people during the period of study, LFC staff wrote.

By comparison, they would have prevented 253 arrests of people accused of violent crimes and 300 accused of non-violent crimes over four years, the memo states.

Proposal to erode bail reform gaining steam

Aggravated assault was the most common violent crime that would have been prevented. None of the homicides committed by people on pretrial release during the four-year study would have been prevented by the reforms, because none were committed by the population targeted by the bill, the LFC staff wrote.

The findings are consistent with national research on pretrial detention that has found little evidence supporting charge-based detention policies, according to the analysts.

Under state law, defendants are only eligible for detention if they are accused of a felony and if a prosecutor files a motion that they be held, the memo states.

“Using a defendant’s current criminal charge as the primary determinant for detention is a values-based approach, not an evidence-based one,” they wrote.

From the latter half of 2019 through the first half of 2021, 40% of defendants whom prosecutors sought to detain before trial were not ultimately convicted, a chart in the report shows.

By contrast, nationwide, 74% of felony cases end with guilty pleas and only 18% are dismissed, according to the National Center for State Courts.

Chief Public Defender Bennett Baur said Jan. 20 that as lawmakers consider criminal justice bills, they should know about the fiscal consequences of their decisions.

At a meeting of the Bernalillo County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, Baur encouraged officials, the Metropolitan Detention Center and the courts to speak with lawmakers about the crime bills going through the Roundhouse this year — especially the preventative detention proposal.

Baur said the Law Offices of the Public Defender will give lawmakers data on how they think the bill will impact their staff and contract attorneys.

I would urge the county, for the jail and the courts also to be in touch, because I think the proposals that I've seen so far would add a substantial amount of workload to all of us.

– Chief Public Defender Bennett Baur

“So whether or not you’re in favor of it or not, I don’t know that this is a place to discuss it. I think there’s a serious financial impact which we should be discussing with the Legislature.”

According to the LFC memo, the cost to taxpayers of more detention exceeds the savings resulting from the any crime prevention achieved by reforms like House Bill 5.

The LFC found that keeping these defendants in jail while they awaited trial would have cost state and local government $23 million while providing savings of $15 million due to crime prevention over the four-year period, amounting to about $2 million in addition costs every year.

Those figures do not account for costs borne by victims of the alleged crimes nor the value of life lost, the memo states.

For context, New Mexico public defenders are already dealing with huge workloads and do not have enough staff to handle cases, according to a study by the American Bar Association published three days before the LFC memo.

The state’s public defenders need more than 600 new attorneys to meet the national standards for indigent defense, the association found.

“Additional costs to defendants, their families, and the economy from unnecessary detention are difficult to quantify but include loss of employment, loss of housing, and increased recidivism,” the LFC memo states.

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Austin Fisher
Austin Fisher

Austin Fisher is a journalist based in Santa Fe. He has worked for newspapers in New Mexico and his home state of Kansas, including the Topeka Capital-Journal, the Garden City Telegram, the Rio Grande SUN and the Santa Fe Reporter. Since starting a full-time career in reporting in 2015, he’s aimed to use journalism to lift up voices that typically go unheard in public debates around economic inequality, policing and environmental racism.