More States, Cities Adopting Risk-Based Bail Alternatives

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New Mexico’s legislature approved a constitutional amendment to reform the use of bail for defendants awaiting trial. It became law after winning the support of 87 percent of voters in this year’s election. NPR reports that the state joined an increasing number of U.S. jurisdictions that have begun to implement risk-based systems of pre-trial detention as a potentially fairer and more effective alternative to traditional money bail. It is common for judges to set bail based solely on the charges a defendant faces, without regard to the defendant’s criminal history or financial means. “It’s really a dishonest way of detaining people,” said Leo Romero, who chairs a committee the New Mexico Supreme Court appointed to lead the state’s bail reform effort.

National data show that in 2009, a third of felony defendants in large urban counties remained in jail because they could not post bail. The median cost of bail was $25,000 at the time, and that cost is particularly acute for poor defendants. Several federal courts have declared the use of money bail for individuals who are too poor to post bond to be unconstitutional. Last month, San Francisco’s city attorney declined to defend the city’s bail system against a legal challenge brought by the civil-rights organization Equal Justice Under Law. In recent years, dozens of cities and states have begun to explore risk-based alternatives to bail. The amendment New Mexico voters approved bars judges from detaining low-risk arrestees who can’t make bail if they pose little threat of danger and are likely to appear for upcoming court dates. Romero’s bail-reform committee also proposed a rule to require judges to release low-level defendants who have been charged with misdemeanors or petty misdemeanors and have not been arrested in the previous two years. Municipal courts in 50 cities in Alabama have adopted similar reforms.


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