Bail Reform: A Better Course of Justice Needed Now

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:  

  • SCR128 would amend the constitution to allow judges to deny pre-trial release to those who are a flight risk, to protect the safety of others in the community, and to prevent obstruction of justice. All too frequently arrested gang and drug leaders have failed to appear in court when required, have ordered hits on witnesses, and have attempted to obstruct the justice process.

    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:

  • Sen. Ron Rice (D-38) urges that the speedy trial time frames be included in the constitutional amendment so that swifter justice for these offenders be constitutionally required.

  • Assemblyman Gordon Johnson (D-37) has expressed concern that the legislation’s funding mechanism for non-monetary pre-trial release would not provide enough funding for the new program, which would involve risk assessments for the defendants.

    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.  

  • Comments (3)

    1. firstamend07

      I am sure Speaker Prieto is overjoyed!

      Does anyone know the rules regarding a special session?

      Do they have to stay in session until they call for a vote?

    2. Bill Orr (Post author)

      The Star Ledger reports,  With the state Assembly possibly missing a key deadline to vote on a bail reform, Gov. Chris Christie is calling them into a special session to prod them to act. He said he will give a speech that will “communicate my recommendations for urgently needed amendments to the state’s bail system.”

      As a former prosecutor Christie is particularly supportive of a constitutional amendment that would permit judges to deny bail to flight risks and those who might obstruct justice. Even many democrats are aware that arrested dangerous criminals when released because they can afford a high bail resort to “additional crimes, threaten witnesses, and intimidate whole neighborhoods.” Even more important is the companion bill that will use a risk assessment approach for those being held on minor charges (particularly possession of a small amount of illegal drugs) to allow alternative approaches to bail and incarceration.

      Thursday is one day before August 4 the date by which the legislature must pass the bill calling for the constitutional amendment.  Democrats would not pass the bill for an amendment ballot issue unless the companion bill is also passed. Christie could also be a dick and call for certain conditions which if not met would result in a conditional veto, but such would be grandstanding on his part and could rebound against him.  He appears to want the legislation passed and so do the legislators. Let’s get it done.


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