New Jersey Bail Reform: It’s Here
During the general election of 2016, New Jersey voted to amend its state constitution. The people decided to remove money from their state’s bail equation and also to speed up trial dates for criminal defendants in New Jersey. The resulting Bail Reform and Speed Trial Act went into effect Jan. 1, 2017. Ultimately, the law aims to foster a more equitable situation for criminal defendants and make New Jersey a safer place.
New Jersey’s Jail Problem
In 2013, New Jersey jails were overcrowded with inmates. The overwhelming majority of these people were not convicts; they were simply awaiting their day in court but could not afford to pay bail.
Often, a lack of bail money means the difference between awaiting trial behind bars or within the comforts of one’s own home. In fact, the Drug Policy Alliance of New Jersey and consulting firm Luminosity found that a striking 38.5% of New Jersey inmates only remained in jail due to financial constraints.
Inmates’ situations grew worse with time — some were forced to stay behind bars for months on end. Based on numbers from October 2012, the state Attorney General’s Office discovered that New Jersey inmates spent an average of 314 days in jail before trial.
One young mother was stranded in jail for 17 months because she — like the majority of Americans — did not have access to $17,500. She was not a flight risk, she was not accused of a violent crime — she simply did not have enough money to be released from jail. The woman told a representative of WHYY Public Media, “I missed 17 months of my children’s lives. You know, birthdays and holidays and everything. You miss a lot. You come home, and everything is different.”
Not only is unnecessary incarceration devastating for inmates and their families, but it also drains the pockets of taxpayers who annually spend tens of thousands of dollars per inmate. When it became clear to New Jersey lawmakers that bail reform was in everyone’s best interest, they decided to solve the problem.
The Bail Reform and Speed Trial Act
In 2014, with support from Gov. Chris Christie, state lawmakers began drafting the bill (S946/A1910) that would become the Bail Reform and Speed Trial Act. After years of work by New Jersey legislators, the law went into effect Jan. 1, 2017.
At its core, the law says that criminal defendants are entitled to a timely trial and that financial circumstances should not play a major role in a person’s incarceration.
Before the act, nearly all criminal defendants could be released on bail — whether they were charged with a violent crime or a relatively minor offense like a traffic violation. Going forward, a judge will decide whether a defendant will be granted bail based on that defendant’s behavior — not their bank account.
Decisions will be, in part, informed by a digital risk assessment tool created by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, in addition to existing New Jersey bail guidelines. The assessment tool evaluates a defendant’s behavior, type of alleged crime, criminal history, age, and other factors. The tool is intended to calculate the likelihood that a defendant will engage in any of the following three actions while released on bail:
- Risk that the defendant will skip their court date
- Risk that the defendant will commit another crime
- Risk that the defendant will commit a violent crime
Once given a defendant’s information, the digital tool produces a risk score. That number does not replace the judge’s sound reasoning, but rather, supplements it. The judge will consider each defendant’s risk score as they decide whether that person should await trial in jail or at home.
Defendants with low risk scores who are allowed to leave jail must complete their bail requirements through an alternative, non-monetary system. For example, a defendant might have regular phone calls or visits with a court-designated supervisor, maintain employment or schooling, or submit to drug testing and electronic monitoring, among other options.
At the other end of the spectrum, high-risk offenders may be denied bail — even if they can pay a hefty sum.
Additionally, the Bail Reform and Speed Trial Act dictates that any person who is arrested in New Jersey must receive a pretrial detention hearing within 48 hours. During this hearing, the court will utilize the assessment tool so that they can make a bail decision.
National Bail Reform
On a given day, U.S. jails hold around one-third of the country’s incarcerated persons. That means that there are currently about 730,000 jailed people who have not been convicted but are simply awaiting trial. Just as it was in New Jersey before the Bail Reform and Speed Trial Act, many people across the rest of America remain behind bars for months on end before they see a courtroom. This unfair practice — which disproportionately impacts low-income and African American populations — has inflicted much emotional pain on families across the country.
Overincarceration is also a burden to the federal taxpayer. In 2013, the Bureau of Justice Statistics released a report on U.S. correctional expenditures between 2005 and 2011. The report stated that local governments annually spent more than one-third of all funds spent by state and local governments on correctional institutions.
New Jersey’s Bail Reform and Speed Trial Act brought bail reform to the national discussion table. Six other states (Virginia, Delaware, Colorado, West Virginia and Hawaii) have also modified their approaches to bail and incarceration. With this momentum, top U.S. lawmakers may begin to consider changing the country’s criminal justice system.
Earnest, Aggressive Defense
The attorneys at Rosenberg | Perry & Associates have long supported the measures in the Bail Reform and Speed Trial Act. We believe this new legislation will positively impact those who are navigating New Jersey’s justice system.
If you or someone you know is currently jailed in New Jersey, contact Rosenberg | Perry & Associates. No matter how much time you have spent in jail, we can help you protect your rights and make decisions that serve your best interests. Call us today at (609) 216-7400 to get a free consultation on your case.