SANTA FE, N.M. (KRQE) – If you follow local crime news, you’ve probably seen headlines mentioning “pretrial detention.” Recently, the debate over when to keep those accused of certain crimes behind bars has heated up – and a bill over that issue has revealed a partisan divide.

House Bill 509, sponsored by both Republicans and Democrats, would change how New Mexico’s legal system determines if someone accused of some crimes (but not yet proven guilty) should be released back into the community or held behind bars. Thursday, March 2, legislators in the House Consumer and Public Affairs Committee debated the bill.

Currently, prosecutors who try to put accused criminals in prison can try to convince the courts that the accused should stay behind bars before their trial. This is called “pretrial detention.”

To keep the accused behind bars, prosecutors have to prove  “by clear and convincing evidence that no release conditions will reasonably protect the safety of any other person or the community,” according to New Mexico’s constitution. But House Bill 509 would instead presume that some people accused of more serious crimes should be kept behind bars. The proposal is often referred to as a “rebuttable presumption” statue.

This means that under the bill, if people accused of specific of “dangerous felony offenses” wanted to be released before trial, the accused and their lawyer would have to convince the court why they aren’t a danger. The seemingly subtle shift in the legal process could have big implications for the state.

Such a shift could mean that over the course of a few years, hundreds or even thousands more people could be put behind bars before their trials, Bennett Baur, the state’s chief public defender, told legislators. “That’s a lot of people spending a lot of time in understaffed and dangerous jails,” Baur said. He cited University of New Mexico research on the topic, but it’s worth noting that some criminal justice professionals have disputed some of that research.

And Baur noted that the bill would impact people accused of crime. And many of those accused turn out to be innocent, he argued. Some of the charges the bill would target include murder, voluntary manslaughter, kidnapping and criminal sexual penetration, among others.

Republican Representative Stefani Lord (R-Tijeras, Edgewood) said that the bill could help stop repeat pedophiles. “I truly appreciate you . . . doing anything to keep pedophiles behind bars, because they have no business running around in the streets,” Lord said.

But without much discussion, the Democrats in the Committee voted to table the bill. Following the decision, Republican Representative John Block (Alamogordo) noted that the bill is a “commonsense” approach to reducing crime and would have supported victims of crime.

Although the bill was tabled Thursday, it could still be revived in the future. But given that a similar bill made an attempt, and failed, last year, it’s not likely that the state will shift pretrial detention rules any time soon.