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Christie calls special session on bail reform

In an extremely rare move, Gov. Chris Christie is using his power to call the legislature back to Trenton for a special session Thursday, to pass legislation to keep dangerous criminals off the streets.

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The state Senate was already scheduled to be at the State House to vote on bail reform measures but now, as per Christie’s call, the full Assembly will have to be in Trenton as well. The governor plans to address both houses at noon.

There are two components to the bail reform legislation. The first would amend the constitution to give judges the discretion to deny bail pending trial. If passed by both houses before Aug. 4, a question would be placed on the November 2014 general election ballot asking voters for their approval. The other facet is a bill that would set guidelines to determine bail eligibility and create bail alternatives for people charged with nonviolent crimes.

“We can only improve our quality of life by keeping the most violent criminals off the streets,” Christie said in his 2012 State of the State Address. “So, I ask you to approve my bail reform package, which would mirror the federal system.”

While the governor has the power to call the legislature back for a special session, he does not have the power to force them to vote on anything. In a phone interview Tuesday, Assembly Speaker Vinnie Prieto (D-Secaucus) did not commit to posting the bill or the resolution for a vote on Thursday.

“We’ll hear him out,” Prieto said. “This will give us time for us to have a discussion with our caucus. We’re going to be in Trenton on Thursday and then we’ll see what plays out on that day.”

Even if the resolution is approved before Aug. 4, the reform to allow judges to deny bail for dangerous criminals would not take effect until 2017, so according to Prieto, there is no rush. The Speaker said he must respect members of his caucus and make sure everyone has all of their concerns addressed. Prieto’s Republican counterpart in the Assembly said he is backing Christie’s play.

“The governor is saying, ‘Listen, it’s time to get those dangerous criminals off the street and allow judges to deny bail,'” said Assembly GOP Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Westfield). “He is saying to the legislature in the middle of the summer, ‘Hey look, if you guys aren’t going to do it, I’m going to take the leadership role and bring everyone back to Trenton and say hey, let’s get working on this bail reform issue that almost everyone agrees should be done.'”

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