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Puerto Rico: What's at Stake in the August 19 Referendum

On Sunday, August 19, Puerto Ricans voted for a referendum to amend their Constitution. The referendum proposes two amendments: one that would limit the constitutional right to bail and one that would reduce the number of legislators. Both issues have sparked passions of supporters and opponents of the proposed amendments. Interestingly, there is a tendency to be for or against both amendments; very few people say they are in favor of one amendment and against the other. A brief summary of each amendment with a bit of context follows.

Restricting the Right to Bail

The amendment, proposed by members of the government affiliated with the Partido Nuevo Progresista [es] (New Progressive Party), but also supported by various leaders of the Partido Popular Democrático [es] (Popular Democratic Party), seeks to limit the right to bail for persons accused of murder giving the judge discretion to impose bail in these cases. The Puerto Rican Constitution [es] guarantees the absolute right to bail, independent of the crime accused of under the belief that an innocent person cannot be deprived of their liberty during an open court case. This proposed amendment to the Constitution to limit this right was presented on one previous occasion and was not passed.

Bail is a mechanism used to assure that the accused appears in court. The amount of bail varies according to the crime allegedly committed by the accused. Judges have the discretion to determine the amount of bail depending on how they perceive the danger the accused can represent in society and the potential risk of not appearing before the justice of the court. If a judge believes the accused to be a flight risk or if there is a high probability that the accused will commit another crime, the judge can impose a higher bail than permitted by law. In the majority of these cases, the accused cannot post bail and remains under arrest, and therefore out of society.

The proposed amendment is based on the premise that there are many people accused of murder out on bail that commit other crimes or threaten witnesses. However, the government has not been able to present statistics that support this theory. A group of experts on the subject of crime in Puerto Rico issued a resolution against the proposed amendment. It explains that statistics demonstrate the contrary of what the amendment suggests:

Se argumenta que hay una relación entre la criminalidad y el derecho a la fianza. No hay estudios ni se ha comprobado que el problema de la criminalidad en Puerto Rico, tenga relación con el derecho a la fianza. La Sociedad para Asistencia Legal de Puerto Rico, señaló que alrededor del 97% de las personas acusadas, no son acusadas nuevamente mientras están en fianza. En cambio sí se ha planteado que el aumento en la criminalidad, guarda relación con otros factores sociales que nada tienen que ver con que las personas que han delinquido permanezcan en la libre comunidad, bajo fianza, mientras se observa en su contra, hasta su conclusión el proceso penal.

The argument is that a relationship exists between crime and the right to bail. There are no studies to date that prove this relationship to exist in Puerto Rico. The Society for Legal Assistance of Puerto Rico pointed out that around 97% of accused persons are not newly accused of other crimes when they are out on bail. In contrast, it has been suggested that the rise in crime bears relation to other social factors that have nothing to do with the fact that the delinquents have been allowed to remain free within their communities, under bail, while the criminal case against them proceeds through the legal system.

Social network sites in the past few days have been very active with people advocating the rejection of the proposed amendment. Twitter users have created the hashtag #NOyNO (No and No), among others like #2VecesNo (Two Times No), to express their opposition to the proposed limitation of bail. Those who do favor the restriction of the right to bail created the hashtag #SiySi (Yes and Yes):

@g_laborde [es]: Este gobierno siempre me ha parecido una precuela a la novela 1984. Hoy decidimos si queremos parecernos más a esa Oceanía de Orwell. #NOYNO

This government has always seemed to me like a prequel to the novel 1984. Today we decide if we want to be more like Orwell's Oceania. #NOYNO

@nydiasuarez [es]: Ojalá que en el mañana no tengamos que llorar como niños lo que no supimos defender como adultos.#NOYNO

‏ I hope that tomorrow we won't have to mourn like children what we didn't know how to defend as adults. #NOYNO

@massimo667 [es]: El crimen se combate mayor vigilancia, trabajo y educacion. NO eliminando el derecho a la fianza. #NOyNO

Crime is fought through better vigilance, employment and education. NOT by eliminating the right to bail. #NOyNO

‏‏@linoshkamarlene [es]: En E.U han enmendado la constitución 27 veces… Para DARLE MAS DERECHOS a los ciudadanos, NO para QUITARSELOS! #NOyNO

In the United States they have amended the constitution 27 times…to GIVE MORE RIGHTS to citizens, NOT to TAKE THEM AWAY! #NOyNO

The campaign by ordinary citizens and on social network sites against the amendments has been very assertive. This is due in part to the fact that these organized citizen groups have not been able to campaign against the referendum through traditional methods because they were treated as an organization that had to register as a political party. This has complicated the process of having a television commercial, and therefore, these citizens have utilized tools such as YouTube to spread their message.

Decreasing the number of legislators

Puerto Rico has a bicameral legislature. This consists of a Senate and a House of Representatives. Currently, there are 78 members of the legislature; this number would be reduced to 56, leaving 39 representatives in the House and 17 in the Senate.

Although there has not been as much activity on social networks as there has about the question of the right to bail, this proposal has met opposition by users, despite seeming on the surface like a sympathetic measure given the general disdain that Puerto Ricans feel towards its Legislature.

This image seeks to demonstrate why the proposed constitutional amendment to reduce the number of legislators is not desirable. Taken from the blog Mujeres en Puerto Rico (Women in Puerto Rico).

The proponents of this amendment stress that a reduction of the number of legislators would decrease the costs of the legislative branch. However, there is no mention at all of reducing the legislature's assigned budget causing many to believe the amendment is simply a way to distribute the same resources among a smaller number of people. Luis José Torres, writing for the online magazine 80 grados (80 degrees), states [es] the following:

De entrada, pese al deseo anunciado de reducir el gasto legislativo, la enmienda constitucional no provee garantía alguna de que ahorrará un centavo al fisco. Ello se debe a que la propuesta no implica que el presupuesto de la Asamblea Legislativa será reducido, o que será mejor utilizado. Después de todo, si tanta voluntad política tuvieran los/as legisladores/as para ello, ¿por qué no han legislado para eliminar sus dietas y demás beneficios? ¿Por qué no se han reducido el salario, en vez de meramente posponer aumentos futuros?

For a start, despite the desire to reduce legislative expenses, the constitutional amendment does not provide any guarantee that one cent will be saved. This is because the proposal does not imply that the Legislative Assembly's budget will be reduced or better utilized. After all, if legislators had so much political will to reduce the budget, why haven't they legislated to eliminate their salaries and other benefits? Why haven't they reduced salaries, instead of merely postponing future raises?

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