Keeping us safer? Top judge comes to the defense of NJ bail reform
After less than two months since it was implemented, the jury may still be out on bail reform in New Jersey.
But state court officials are pushing back against criticism — loudly levied by the state's bail bondsmen, many who may go out of business under the new rules — that the reforms are releasing dangerous criminals from jail with no accountability.
“It’s an inaccurate way of looking at the system,” said Judge Glenn A. Grant, acting administrative director of the New Jersey Courts.
Under the new system prosecutors can urge the court to detain someone without bail, which could help protect witnesses, victims and others in the public.
“Under the old system there was no right of a prosecutor to say this individual poses a serious risk of committing an offense and needs to be detained while awaiting his or her trial,” he said.
He pointed out the old system that was in use until the beginning of this year was solely based upon bail — a defendant’s ability to pay their way out of jail.
“When you’re talking about having people released based upon their economic resources you create disparities based upon income,” he said.
“There were thousands of people that were in jail on bails of less than $2,500 for low level offenses, but under the new system (which allows a low level offender to be released without bail) there’s a way of monitoring the individual and trying to track whether the person gets in trouble or not.”
Defendants awaiting trial have not been convicted and the law is supposed to treat them as innocent until proven guilty.
As for the criticism that the new system relies too much on a mysterious computer algorithm or “black box technology” to determine whether a defendant poses a risk if released, Grant said this is simply not the case.
The information that is used to calculate someone’s risk of committing an offense while out on release, calculating whether the person will show up or fail to appear in court, calculating the seriousness of their charges, is public information and it’s available on the internet,” he said.
The judge stressed it’s very important for people to understand these factors are used to make a recommendation, not a decision, about whether someone should be released or not.
“If you have a prior history of criminality, if you have a prior history of failing to appear in court, that’s going to be the driving factors as to whether you are a high risk, and the recommendation should be for you to be detained," he said.
While the computer may be used to give a recommendation on this matter, “judges, lawyers have the final say on whether a person should be pre-trial detained, and what conditions should they undergo, should they be released," Grant said.
Grant pointed out that what is being attempted “is to balance the public safety by saying certain individuals need to be pre-trial detained and other individuals can be released with certain conditions.”
Those conditions may include house arrest, monitoring, coming in to report weekly, or telephone contacts with law enforcement personnel.
“None of these options existed before Jan. 1, and bail bondsmen did no supervision, provided no oversight of people released on bail, so we have a remarkably better system,” he said.
“No system, either the old or the new system, can prevent all risk. There is some risk of releasing anybody out into the community," he said.
"We could take the position as they do in certain authoritarian countries and say let’s just lock up everybody who is alleged to have committed a crime. But that’s not the system we have in New Jersey or in the United States.”
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Contact reporter David Matthau at David.Matthau@townsquaremedia.com.