‘Make a mistake with this, somebody dies’ — NJ to modify bail reform this month
New Jersey’s bail reforms are likely to be modified by month’s end, to increase the likelihood that defendants with a history of weapons offenses are detained until their trial rather than released.
Criminal-justice reforms that took effect Jan. 1 have effectively ended cash bail in New Jersey. Defendants who are deemed as dangerous or a risk to flee before their trial can be detained, while others are released and subject to various degrees of monitoring.
So far, roughly one in eight defendants has been detained. Prosecutors have asked the judiciary to increase the likelihood that weapons, eluding and domestic violence offenses, as well as a person’s juvenile history, cause a defendant to be detained.
Appellate Judge Glenn Grant, the acting administrative director of the New Jersey courts, said data supporting or refuting those requests is being assessed but that change is likely.
“I would hope by the end of the month to be able to say to you we have now given a higher priority to certain offenses,” Grant said.
Grant testified about bail reform at two legislative budget hearings. At the first, he said meetings were planned to review the prosecutors’ request and that changes should be deliberative and data-driven. At the second, he sounded far more definitive about how that review will end.
“We believe we should be able to make modifications dealing with some of the gun issues in the relatively near future, in a couple of weeks,” Grant said.
Grant said the assessment tool already looks into weapons offenses.
“What we’re now saying is: Should we give a higher priority? And I would hope by the end of the month to be able to say to you we have now given a higher priority to certain offenses,” Grant said. “But there will never be a situation where a person charged with every weapon offense will be a recommendation for pretrial detention.”
Lawmakers from Hudson County and Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop have pressed for the bail reforms to more aggressively detain people facing weapons charges.
Sen. Sandra Cunningham, D-Hudson, said “bail reform is great” but that improvements to the system need to be implemented faster. She says Jersey City police officers are complaining about a rash of rearrests of people with a history of gun violence who’ve been released rather than detained.
“And unfortunately when they come back out on the streets, they’re coming back out and they’re shooting someone. Or they’re killing someone,” Cunningham said.
Grant said gun violence didn’t start after criminal justice reform and can’t be ended by it. He said the bail changes shouldn’t be a scapegoat.
“I can go through probably 20 cases from 2016 where individuals were released on bail and people were murdered,” Grant said.
Cunningham said gun violence has been a “really bad” problem in Jersey City for eight or nine years and that she’s not using bail reform as a scapegoat.
“But recently, since bail reform has come into existence, we’ve seen more people coming back out of jail, out of being arrested, and let go immediately,” Cunningham said. “And these are people who have either threatened people in the past or when they were arrested, they were arrested with loaded guns and all kinds of weaponry. But they’ve still been let go.”
“Some of them even taunt the cops, like, ‘OK, you can arrest me if you want. I’ll be out in a few hours. Don’t worry about it. I’m back out on the street,’” Cunningham said.
Sen. Jeff Van Drew, D-Cape May, also encouraged the judiciary’s review to move quickly.
“Certain mistakes you make, eh, you know, it doesn’t hurt people that much. You make a mistake with this, somebody dies,” Van Drew said.
In the first three months after bail reform, 1,262 of the 10,193 defendants brought before Superior Court judges were detained until trial, just over 12 percent.
About 11 percent were released on their own recognizance. The other 77 percent were released on different levels of monitoring, such as regular reporting, electronic monitoring or home detention – but in only eight of those 7,836 cases was a person required to post cash bail for their release.
In the past, cash bail used to be available to all defendants. Pretrial detention rates have ranged from less than 10 percent of defendants in Bergen, Essex, Gloucester and Hudson counties to over 20 percent in Atlantic and Passaic counties.
Judges agreed with about 56 percent of detention requests from prosecutors. Those approval rates ranged from 30 percent or lower in Gloucester and Salem counties to 78 percent or higher in Hudson, Hunterdon, Mercer, Morris and Warren counties.
“That’s something we couldn’t do before. Now we can keep people incarcerated that should be incarcerated,” said Peter Bariso, the assignment judge for the Hudson vicinage. “Under the old system, if they had enough money, they were out on the street again. Today we can detain those individuals.”
“All of the truly violent offenders are being incarcerated,” said Mercer County Prosecutor Angelo Onofri. “Could there be an exception in Mercer? I’m sure there is.”
Grant said prosecutors didn’t request pretrial detention in the four weapons-related examples cited in Attorney General Christopher Porrino’s request for modifications in the assessments. He said that under state law, judges can’t consider detaining a defendant unless prosecutors ask.