NBC News EXCLUSIVE: New Mexico Eliminated Cash Bail — But Now One County Adds Tougher Pre-Trial Mandates

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Amanda Schottmuller sat quietly during her criminal court hearing on June 29, 2020, understanding little about what was happening. She didn't know why a judge was trying to determine if she was dangerous.

"It didn't make any sense," Schottmuller, a 37-year-old former nurse who has struggled with depression, bipolar disorder, and substance abuse for the past 10 years, later said. "I've never tried to harm anyone in my life."

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About two weeks earlier, police arrested Schottmuller for trespassing at a gas station in Edgewood, New Mexico, about 60 miles south of Santa Fe. She then allegedly kicked out the back window of a police car, trying to escape, so she was charged with destruction of property and resisting arrest. She also faced a burglary charge for breaking into a Walgreens a week earlier and allegedly stealing a Mountain Dew and three packs of cigarettes. She pleaded not guilty.

"When this was sold to the voters in 2016, it was promised that it would only be used to detain the worst of the worst," a New Mexico public defender said.

Though no one was hurt in these incidents, a Santa Fe County prosecutor sought to hold Schottmuller in jail without bond while she awaited trial, arguing to a judge that her erratic behavior made her a danger to the public.

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Four years ago, state law would not have allowed prosecutors to request that Schottmuller be held without bond. But in 2016, New Mexico voters approved a constitutional amendment to almost entirely eliminate cash bail. The change was designed to prevent low-risk defendants from getting stuck in jail before trial just because they couldn't pay.

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But in practice — because the new law also allowed judges to deny bail in felony cases for the most dangerous defendants, without clearly defining what it meant to be "dangerous" — public defenders and policy experts say it's had the unintended consequence of keeping more defendants in jail without any option of pretrial release at all. 

From 2015 to 2016 — prior to the elimination of cash bail — only eight defendants were held in jail without bond across four New Mexico counties, including Santa Fe County, according to a University of New Mexico study.

This year, from January to mid-October, at least 30 defendants in Santa Fe County alone were held without bond, according to data obtained by NBC News. Those include people accused of murder, but also those charged with nonviolent crimes, such as burglary, driving while intoxicated and drug possession. 

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"When this was sold to the voters in 2016, it was promised that it would only be used to detain the worst of the worst," said Jennifer Burrill, a supervising attorney in the state public defender office's Santa Fe division. "Unfortunately, that's not how it's being utilized."

Read the full exclusive on NBCNews.com

LINK: https://nbcnews.to/2ItUgyV

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