Assembly approves bail overhaul
TRENTON (AP) — After a push from Gov. Chris Christie, New Jersey lawmakers agreed Monday to let voters decide on a key part of an overhaul of the state's bail system to keep suspends deemed dangerous behind bars while letting out more of those charged with lesser offenses even if they cannot afford bail.
The Assembly voted 60-0 with eight abstentions to put forth a constitutional amendment to eliminate the right to bail for all people accused of crimes. The measure, which has bipartisan support and the backing of groups including the New Jersey branches of the NAACP and the Drug Policy Alliance, will appear on ballots in November.
The Assembly also agreed by an overwhelming margin to a companion law that lays out how judges will be able to release suspects without making them post bail. That measure now heads to Christie's desk. He is expected to sign it.
Advocates for the measures say they are needed to change a system where three-fourths of the people in county jails are awaiting trial rather than serving sentences. They say 40 percent of the state's inmates are in jail because they don't have the money to get out.
"Under these reforms, our justice system will be both more effective in protecting our communities from dangerous, violent repeat offenders, and fairer to those non-violent offenders who do not deserve to sit in jail simply because they can't afford even low bail amounts," Christie said in a statement released while he was vacationing with his family.
Last week, he called a special legislative session aimed at pushing lawmakers to act on the bail bills.
While he could force lawmakers to show up in Trenton, he did not have legal power to make them take action. Even before he spoke about his reform plans, Democratic Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto said the Assembly would not be voting that day. Some members were balking, partly over concerns that the changes could give judges too much power.
Later, though, Prieto said the Assembly would reconvene on Monday, the last day to pass a measure and get it on the November ballot.
In the meantime, the Senate, which was already scheduled to vote on the bail bills, did so.
Officials from both parties hailed the action as an example of bipartisan cooperation.
Assemblyman Whip Wilson, a Democrat from Camden, said the changes are needed.
"Jail is not meant to be a detention center for the poor," he said in a statement. "The legislation we advanced today will create a more balanced bail system where a suspect's risk to the community is weighed more heavily than the resources at his disposal."
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