Ahead of the 2022 legislative session, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and allied lawmakers are calling for legislation that would make it even easier to detain people accused of certain felony crimes before their trials, citing public safety concerns. The legislation they propose flies in the face of the core American principle of “innocent until proven guilty” by creating a presumption against release for people accused of certain crimes.
Presumptive pretrial detention will inevitably put innocent people behind bars without requiring evidence they’ve actually committed the crime of which they’re accused. Lawmakers intend to introduce this legislation even after a recent study by the University of New Mexico’s Institute of Social Research found that 95 percent of people charged with felonies who were released pending trial between July 2017 to March 2020 were not arrested for violent crime during their release period.
Under current law, which was changed by a constitutional amendment in 2016 to move the state away from the unjust system of money bail, judges can already hold people pending trial if prosecutors demonstrate they pose a threat to public safety. The proposals for the 2022 session would not require any such evidence. This will lead to hundreds of additional people being jailed before trial and will further dilute our constitutional rights.
Lawmakers’ intentions are rooted in concerns for public safety. But good intentions don’t make for good policy. Evidence does. And the evidence shows our pretrial system is largely working. It has and will continue to improve in response to developing data and experience, but it isn’t broken.
Moreover, locking more people up pretrial is actually likely to have an adverse effect on public safety. Jail time can result in a lost job, lost income, eviction and even loss of child custody. Many people wind up pleading guilty just to go home. Even after a person is released from jail, they must live with the trauma of incarceration and the permanent stigma associated with jail time, which may prevent them from finding employment or housing. Lack of stable employment and housing, in turn, often leads people to turn to illicit means of earning money.
The tragic truth is that nobody comes out of jail in a better position to take care of themselves or their family. Many people charged and held, even under the current system, are never found to have committed the crime they were charged with. That injustice would only grow if people were held in greater numbers.
During the coronavirus pandemic, incarceration in an overcrowded, understaffed jail carries the additional risk of severe illness and death. That risk extends to surrounding communities where jail staff live.
Public safety is understandably a top priority for our communities. But these proposals will not make us safer. New Mexico’s elected officials should not sacrifice people’s liberty and lives for political points. To increase public safety, lawmakers must pass legislation that actually addresses the underlying causes of crime to reduce crime in our communities.
We can have a fair justice system that upholds people’s rights while keeping communities safe. But to do that, we have to free ourselves from the belief that the more people we put behind bars, the safer we’ll be. The opposite is true.
This op-ed originally appeared in the Santa Fe New Mexican.