On August 19th Puerto Rico will vote on whether to amend its Constitution to limit the right to bail. Unlike a previous attempt to amend the Constitution in 1994, the proposed bail reform does not eliminate the absolute right to bail enshrined in Puerto Rico’s Constitution since 1952, but rather it will empower judges to have discretion on whether or not to grant bail in limited circumstances.
If approved, local judges will be able to deny bail to those accused of first degree murder, murder committed during a home robbery, rape or kidnapping, murder committed as a result of shooting from a moving vehicle or into a crowded public, or when the victim is a police officer on duty.
The bail reform amendment was promoted by the governor, Luis Fortuño, a rising star within the GOP and one frequently mentioned as a potential VP pick. The legislature, controlled by the New Progressive Party (statehood party) approved the enabling act for the referendum despite the opposition of the Popular Democratic Party (commonwealth party) and their candidate for governor, Senator Alejandro Garcia Padilla.
Surprisingly, and unlike the 1994 referendum on bail reform, the opposition is divided since their gubernatorial candidate Senator Garcia-Padilla switched his stance on bail reform once the enabling act was approved. Garcia-Padilla voted against Act. 84 of 2012, the enabling act for the referendum on bail reform – yet once approved, he flipped and agreed with the proposed amendment, going as far as publicly stating that he would vote in favor.
Following Garcia Padilla’s endorsement of the Governor’s bail reform amendment, his party quickly broke down into opposing camps. Former Governor Rafael Hernandez-Colon and Sila Calderon both endorsed the bail reform amendment, while former Governor Anibal Acevedo-Vila and Garcia-Padilla’s own running mate, Rafel Cox-Alomar, opposed the amendment.
Last week, Garcia-Padilla expressed that his fellow “Populares” were free to vote their conscience on August 19th, but that he would be voting in favor of bail reform. The Statehood party has expressed its full support for the reform.
Besides the two main parties, minority parties such as the Puerto Rico Independence Party (PIP), Puerto Ricans for Puerto Rico (PPPR), United Sovereignty Movement (MUS) and the Puerto Rico Workers Party (PPPT) have all expressed their vehement opposition to the proposed bail reform, arguing that it will do nothing to lower the alarming crime rates on the Island, and only serve to further punish lower income citizens upon indictment. The Puerto Rico State Bar Association (Colegio de Abogados de Puerto Rico) also came out against the measure while the Puerto Rico Lawyers Association has endorsed it.
While the former Chief Judge of the U.S. District Court for the District of Puerto Rico, Judge José Fusté endorsed the measure, stating that Federal Courts have a limited right to bail and that said limitation has served Puerto Rico well.
The measure comes amid several years of increased crime rates and the exhaustion of police measures such as activating the National Guard, stricter penalties, a new proposed Penal Code currently under consideration and greater spending for fighting crime. Proponents of the measure argue that bail reform is essential to deter criminals and keep those recurrent criminals behind bars pending trial. Opponents, however, argue the demographic targeted by the amendment (ie. first degree murder) only affects about 3% of the criminal population, not enough to make a dent in the Island’s crime rates.
With the opposition (Popular Democratic Party) divided, a repeat of the 1994 bail reform defeat is unlikely. Garcia-Padilla knows that he must play strong on crime, and supporting a “No” vote could make his candidacy look weak in front of crime-shocked voters. Governor Fortuño, on the other hand, will gain an electoral win nearing to the November elections where the race between the two is poised to be a close one.