There has been broad agreement among Democrats and Republicans for years that our bail system requires reform – but less agreement on the precise changes to be enacted. After back-and-forth discussions legislators are nearing an agreement on two bills, but unresolved issues remain which might derail the reform. Also time is running out as one bill calls for a constitutional amendment to be placed on November’s ballot requiring a 60% legislative majority vote by August 4. The Senate appears poised to meet the deadline, but the Assembly less so.
Assuring that the most dangerous criminals have less access to bail and that the least dangerous be provided alternatives are important goals. There is suspicion the bail industry is trying to block the bills. Denying bail to some and providing alternatives to others reduces the income of bail bondsmen.
The paramount issue, nonetheless, is fairness, particularly for those who spend ten months or more in jail on minor offenses because they cannot afford bail. NJ Chief Justice Stuart Rabner has said that the system ensnares the poor unfairly, resulting in unnecessary incarceration and a higher-frequency of guilty pleas. The legislature should quickly resolve their differences and pass these two bills now.
The two bills are:
Democrats rightly insist that the companion bill (S946) be passed simultaneously. The bill implements the constitutional amendment authorizing denial of pretrial release under the special circumstances and establishes speedy trial time frames; reforms bail proceedings; adds non-monetary bail alternatives; and authorizes Judiciary to revise fees for these and other court-related programs. The non-monetary alternative has long been needed. Under this plan release would be based on risk assessment, and payment of monetary bail would no longer be the primary need for release.
Two of the remaining issues include:
These two issues and any others should not be allowed to derail this important legislation. They should be resolved quickly, and the Assembly should join with the Senate to pass the bills by August 4 even if a few members have to alter their vacation schedules.