COMMENTARY: The images were a stark reminder of the cancer in our political system: Three state lawmakers – two Democrats, one Republican — stood with a bail bondsman at a news conference in early 2016 to announce a compromise on bail reform.
The proposed constitutional amendment allowed the release, while awaiting trial, of some non-violent indigent defendants. The idea was that holding people charged with non-violent crimes in jail only because they can’t afford bond hurts society: It separates children from parents. It incarcerates breadwinners, which exacerbates poverty and dependence on welfare. It harms businesses that lose employees. It burdens taxpayers with unnecessary jail costs.
The legislation would have stopped some businesses from profiting off the troubles of the poor. So, naturally, the bail bond industry organized opposition.
The corrupting influence of money overtook a bipartisan proposal to dismantle an oppressive system. Compromise became the only way to salvage the proposal.
What eventually became law in New Mexico requires indigent defendants charged with non-violent crimes to petition a judge for their release. It’s an extra step that assumes an understaffed public defender’s office and an overworked court system will function as intended – which is too often not what happens.
It’s another layer of ineffective bureaucracy the poor have to navigate. So it’s inevitable that some will instead choose to make a financial sacrifice to pay a bondsman, like taking out a short-term loan with an interest rate of several hundred percent. In exchange for help out of a crisis, poor folks often become saddled with even more debt that exacerbates their poverty.
The debate over capping interest rates on those short-term loans is another example of the influence of special interests on our system. Since 2010, at least 11 bills to cap interest rates in New Mexico died without making it out of a single committee. The votes against these bills have been bipartisan. That’s largely because the industry donated at least $866,000 to both Republican and Democratic politicians during that time.
A bill to cap interest rates at 36 percent already died in the current session of the N.M. Legislature. A possible compromise would cap interest rates at 175 percent.
You read that correctly. 175 percent.
During a recent Facebook discussion, Chris O’Donnell of Albuquerque called that interest rate “unethical, predatory and simply beyond any shred of decency.” Ray Wilkinson of Albuquerque called the situation “crony capitalism at its worst.”
And from Rebecca Cabildo of Los Alamos: “Really disappointed in our Legislature. They have to do better than this.”
In fact, I’ve been speaking for years with everyday people about bail reform and capping short-term loan interest rates. I’ve found agreement across ideology about the obvious: These systems rob the poor to line the pockets of people with power and privilege. These systems should be dismantled.
But in New Mexico, we don’t dismantle them. We just scale them back a bit. The debate isn’t about whether to continue robbing the poor. It’s about how much we’re going to take.
The bail reform approved last year was a step forward, but a small one. Capping interest rates on short-term loans at 175 percent would be the same.
These aren’t changes to celebrate with pride. We should be ashamed that this is the best we can do.
We’ll have to find a way to drastically reduce the influence of lobbyists and money on our government before we can dismantle the predatory systems too many of our policymakers continue to prop up.
Heath Haussamen is NMPolitics.net’s editor and publisher.