NJ may tweak bail reform to keep more suspects behind bars
New Jersey officials say the near-elimination of cash bail, now entering its fifth month, has been a success – not perfect, but as smooth a change as they could have expected.
Now some of those imperfections may be addressed, starting with a possible expansion of the list of demerits in the checklist used to assess whether to recommend defendants be released without having to post bail or be detained until trial without the possibility of bail.
Technically, bail still exists – but it’s only been made an option in only “a little more than a handful” of cases since criminal-justice reforms took effect Jan. 1, said Glenn Grant, acting administrative director of the New Jersey courts.
About 1,100 people have been detained without bail, while the jail population has been reduced – as was the intention, to limit the number of people locked up while awaiting trial because they weren’t able to afford even nominal amounts of bail.
Attorney General Christopher Porrino said bail reform has been “in some ways, more successful than we would have thought” – but he said his office anticipated some tweaks would be needed, and it has asked the courts to expand the list of offenses that weigh against releasing a defendant before his or her trial.
“This is groundbreaking, earth-shaking kind of reform for criminal justice in the state of New Jersey, certainly the deepest and most significant reform that I’ve lived for and maybe the most significant in the history of the state,” Porrino said.
“What comes with change like that are some creaking wheels,” he said. “I will tell you we anticipated that there would be for lack of a better term some growing pains. I would say that at the moment those pains have been less painful that we thought they would have been.”
Prosecutors are asking that the assessment put more weight on charges for gun possession and eluding police in a car, as well as repeat offenses allegedly committed while a person is free on pretrial release, probation or parole.
“Someone who’s out on probation, parole or pretrial release who is not abiding the law is someone who’s got to be treated differently,” Porrino said.
Sen. Brian Stack, D-Hudson, who is also the mayor of Union City, said it’s important that the program change how it evaluates people who commit another crime while released awaiting trial.
“I’m all for bail reform. I support it 100 percent,” Stack said. “But we just got to be careful of those repeat offenders over and over and over again, where you have one person that commits – we had one that committed 40 burglaries in Union City.”
Grant said any changes must be driven by objective data and considered cautiously.
“There are, of course, some other valid and understandable concerns raised with respect to how the program operates in certain situations,” Grant said. “We are still in the embryonic stages of the program and need to be careful in making any changes before the program has been fully implemented.”
At a budget hearing last week, he said judicial officials were meeting Wednesday with the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, which developed the pretrial risk-assessment tool, to examine changes related to juvenile history, domestic violence, gun charges and rearrests while on pretrial release.
Representatives from the Office of the Attorney General, Office of the Public Defender and American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey were also attending the meeting, Grant said.
Grant said the criminal-justice reforms face “one significant challenge, as I see it” – money.
Criminal-justice reforms prompted the state judiciary to establish a new Pretrial Services program, largely for assessing defendants for detention or release. Court fees were hiked to pay for it – but they already aren’t covering the cost, in part because court filings are down.
“We are subject to the up and downs of our filings, and it’s always existed that way,” Grant said. “That’s why you go back to the fundamental question: Is filing fees a sound basis to run an ongoing operation of government?’”
Even if filings weren’t down, the program would still have financial challenges. It will cost the courts around $37 million this year, but only $22 million from the increased court fees are dedicated to the program.
Judicial officials warned lawmakers about the likely deficit when the hike in the court fees was authorized in 2014. For now, the program can lean on a surplus built as the program was in development. By late 2018 or early 2019, the structural deficit will become an actual deficit.
The Senate budget committee will further examine bail reform at a budget hearing Thursday.