The influential NM senator calls for a review of the instrument of pre-trial detention

In this 2020 file photo, Senator Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, presents a bill to the Senate. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE — The arrest of a suspect charged with politically motivated shootings in Albuquerque emerges in the Roundhouse amid debate over whether it should be easier to hold more defendants while they await trial.

Citing the shooting case, Senator Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, on Thursday renewed his opposition to an overhaul of New Mexico’s pre-trial detention law, but called for a broader scrutiny of how courts are conducting it.

Cervantes, chairman of the Senate’s powerful Judiciary Committee, praised a Metropolitan Court judge’s decision to keep Solomon Pena – a failed parliamentary candidate charged with the shooting – in custody pending a hearing on the detention.

It’s evidence, Cervantes said, that judges already have the discretion they need to hold defendants in jail when appropriate while they await trial.

But he also criticized an analytical tool that is taken into account by the courts in their decision-making. The security assessment had not recommended the highest level of surveillance if the accused were released.

The Arnold tool — which analyzes the likelihood of a defendant appearing in court and/or committing a new crime — will be under scrutiny by the Senate Judiciary Committee this session, Cervantes said.

He told the Journal it’s a tool “with many flaws, but used to justify releasing criminals.”

Artie Pepin, director of the state Administrative Office of the Courts, said the Arnold Tool only recommends the level of surveillance if a judge determines the accused can be released before the trial. It is for a judge to decide whether release is appropriate.

“Researchers have confirmed that the (public safety assessment) reliably estimates the likelihood that the individual will return for future court hearings and remain free of arrest,” Pepin said.

Pena, a Republican who lost a lopsided home race last year, has been accused by authorities of orchestrating a series of drive-by shootings targeting the homes of four Democratic officials, including House Speaker Javier Martínez, and State Senator Linda Lopez.

Pena had visited the home of at least one official to raise allegations of voter fraud. He lost his race by 48 percentage points and no evidence of cheating has surfaced.

A city judge ruled earlier this week to keep Pena in custody pending a district court hearing deciding whether to release him before trial.

“The judge is doing the right thing here,” Cervantes told his colleagues in the Senate on Thursday. But “we will seek the same level of protection for all New Mexicans, not just elected officials.”

Whether New Mexico’s pre-trial detention system – which was overhauled by a 2016 constitutional amendment – should be overhauled has been the focus of debate in the Roundhouse for years.

Cervantes spoke Thursday in particular against an idea — legislation that would create a rebuttable presumption of dangerousness for those charged with certain violent crimes.

The aim of such proposals is to make it easier for more suspects to be incarcerated before sentencing – to discourage them from committing new crimes.

But opponents say courts can keep an accused already in jail when there is no other way to protect the public.