SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – Puerto Rico is holding a two-part referendum on Sunday that could see the island amend its constitution for the first time in nearly half a century.
The referendum would reduce the size of the U.S. territory's government by almost 30 percent as a cost-cutting measure, and would give judges the right to deny bail in certain murder cases. Puerto Rico currently is the only place in the Western hemisphere where all suspects, including those charged with rape and murder, are entitled to bail.
Supporters say the proposals would save the government money, reduce crime and protect witnesses and the relatives of victims. Opponents say the measures would give more power to remaining legislators and strip suspects of their constitutional rights.
Puerto Rico reported a record number of homicides last year and is struggling to quell a wave of drug-related violence that has killed an increasing number of innocent bystanders. Puerto Ricans also have expressed anger over legislative spending and political corruption scandals that have forced the resignation of several officials.
Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz urged voters to approve both proposals, saying the money saved from shrinking the legislature would be used to fight crime and improve the island's education system. The referendum calls for reducing the number of Senate seats from 27 to 17 and the number of House seats from 51 to 39.
Rivera also reminded voters of several high-profile cases in which murder suspects who posted bail were accused of killing again. Among those was Xavier Jimenez Bencevi, who was out on bail in 2007 when he was accused of killing a federal witness and of trying to kill two police officers.
"We have to stop people like that in their tracks," Rivera said. "We have to treat them differently."
Since January 2009, there have been 563 cases of suspects destroying evidence and 438 cases of suspects intimidating witnesses, according to Justice Secretary Guillermo Somoza, who said witnesses too often are unwilling to testify because they fear being killed. He said he did not know how many of those suspects were accused of murder.
If approved, judges would have the discretion to deny bail to those accused of premeditated murder, of killing a police officer or of killing someone in a public space or during a home invasion, sexual assault or drive-by shooting.
As in the U.S., prosecutors would have to prove the suspect is a flight risk or a danger to the community.
But the bail proposal has been criticized by many, including Jose Andreu Garcia, former chief justice of Puerto Rico's Supreme Court.
He said limiting bail would not reduce crime and argued the proposal "is intended to shift attention from the real factors that lead to rampant and unresolved crimes," such as poor crime investigations and improperly trained police and prosecutors.
Also opposing the referendum is Carlos Negron, father of 15-year-old Karla Michelle Negron, who died after being hit by a stray bullet on New Year's Eve.
"I have always said and I maintain that this does not resolve crime," he said. "The problem in Puerto Rico is the lack of values and the incompetence of the justice department."
He criticized prosecutors and judges for releasing murder suspects on what he called absurdly low bail, but also said he could not deny reasonable bail to whoever was responsible for killing his daughter.
"That is a right that every citizen has," Negron said.
Puerto Rico's constitution currently prohibits judges from denying bail or setting an excessively high bail, a determination left up to the court's interpretation. Defense attorneys also can ask that a different judge lower bail.
If the referendum is approved, the bail amendment would go into effect almost immediately, while the reduction of the legislature would become effective January 2017.