In this photo taken on Thursday, Jan. 11, 2012, the Puerto Rican flag waves in front of the south wing of the Capitol in San Juan, Puerto Rico. A voter referendum will ask the people of the U.S. island territory if they want to amend their Constitution and fire dozens of members of their Senate and House of Representatives as a cost-savings measure, reducing the size of the legislature by almost 30 percent. The answer is almost certain to be a resounding yes. (AP Photo/Ricardo Arduengo)

In this pho­to tak­en on Thurs­day, Jan. 11, 2012, the Puer­to Rican flag waves in front of the south wing of the Capi­tol in San Juan, Puer­to Rico. A vot­er ref­er­en­dum will ask the peo­ple of the U.S. island ter­ri­to­ry if they want to amend their Con­sti­tu­tion and fire dozens of mem­bers of their Sen­ate and House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives as a cost-sav­ings mea­sure, reduc­ing the size of the leg­is­la­ture by almost 30 per­cent. The answer is almost cer­tain to be a resound­ing yes. (AP Photo/Ricardo Arduen­go)

By DANICA COTO

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.