New bail system aims to reduce jail population, economic bias

By VASHTI HARRIS
Staff Writer

EAST BRUNSWICK — What began with a study that revealed racial and economic bias in the New Jersey bail system has prompted local and state government officials to change state law and create new criminal justice reform legislation.

Presiding Judge Alberto Rivas for the Superior Court’s Criminal Division spoke to the East Brunswick Township Council about the state’s recently enacted bail and speedy trial reform, explaining its functions and impact on the East Brunswick Police Department.

“Generally this new reform will help lower the state’s jail population. Every place that has already enforced this legislation has seen their jail population decrease,” Rivas said during the Jan. 23 meeting.

On Jan. 1, the state shifted from a system that relies principally on setting monetary bail as a condition of release to a risk-based system that is more objective and, thus, fairer to defendants because it is unrelated to their ability to pay monetary bail, according to the New Jersey Courts’ official website. The statute also sets deadlines for the timely filing of an indictment and the disposition of criminal charges for incarcerated defendants.

Before this new legislation was enforced, state law required judges to set bail for every defendant regardless of how minor or severe the defendant’s offense was. Now judges can decide if a defendant can be released, without paying any bail, solely positioned on a risk-based system that is done by a pretrial services unit.

“The risk-based assessment will be done by staff composed of a pretrial services unit that a judge will look at and evaluate,” Rivas said.

Under the old system in which judges set a dollar amount of bail, poor defendants who posed little risk of danger or flight were sometimes held in county jail because they could not make even modest amounts of bail, according to the New Jersey Courts.

Under criminal justice reform, judges will assess the level of risk each defendant presents and impose conditions of release. Judges will use an objective risk assessment tool that has been tested and validated with data from thousands of actual cases in New Jersey, according to the website. Judges will consider factors such as the defendant’s age at the time of arrest, pending charges, prior convictions and whether any of those involved violence, prior failures to appear and prior jail sentences.

With that information, each defendant will be classified as low, moderate or high risk and may be released on conditions without having to post monetary bail. Defendants who are released pretrial will be monitored by pretrial services staff, similar to those in the federal system and a number of states, according to the website. Judges also will be able to order those defendants who pose a serious risk of flight or a serious risk of danger to the community or to witnesses to be held without bail.

The staff of the pretrial services unit will not only administer risk assessments, but assist in monitoring defendants once they are released.

The [pretrial services unit] that will be part of the judiciary will complete risk assessments so that a judge can set conditions of release within 48 hours of each arrest. The staff will monitor defendants on release based on the level of supervision that each defendant requires. For low-risk defendants, that could amount to nothing more than a phone call or text to remind them to show up in court. As the risk level increases, the nature of the monitoring will be enhanced, according to the New Jersey Courts’ website.

“Fortunately, our Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office has provided excellent training and information for all agencies in Middlesex County prior to the implementation of bail reform so agencies could prepare. In East Brunswick, we have also trained our supervisory personnel with in-service training in order to be as efficient and effective when carrying out these new procedures,” East Brunswick Police Chief James Conroy said.

“The East Brunswick police will follow the mandates of the attorney general and Middlesex County prosecutor to ensure we are successful in implementing bail reform as it is intended. We will continue to enhance the quality of life in the Township of East Brunswick by building a trust and confidence in a progressive partnership with the public to equally and proactively enforce the laws, preserve the peace and promote an atmosphere of safety and security,” Conroy said.

The speedy trial element of the reform will enforce set limits on the amount of time a defendant can remain in jail before his/her trial. The law contains appropriate extensions of time for pretrial motions, competency hearings, plea negotiations, the consent of the parties and other excludable time, according to the website.

The New Jersey office of the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) largely drafted the new bail reform legislation while also helping to bring attention to better bail legislation with a commissioned study.

In March 2013, the DPA commissioned a study of the state’s jail population which was completed by Marie VanNostrand of Luminosity, a criminal justice consulting firm. The findings of this study provided the data needed to document and fully understand the major problems with the existing bail system, according to the Pretrial Justice Institute’s (PJIwebpage

Its findings showed that 71 percent of the population in New Jersey jails were blacks and Latinos. Of the total population, 38 percent were held solely due to their inability to meet the conditions of the bail set for them. And 12 percent of the population was held because of their inability to pay $2,500 or less. The average length of stay in jail pending trial was about 10 months, according to PJI. 

The bail reform legislation ultimately passed both houses, was signed by Gov. Chris Christie and passed by New Jersey voters with 62 percent of the vote, green-lighting a redesign of the state’s bail system which has already taken effect, according to PJI. 

However, like most new legislation, New Jersey’s bail and speedy trial reform has been met with some opposition at the hands of the bail bonds industry and Middlesex County officials.

In a statement released by Middlesex County Freeholder Director Ronald G. Rios, he expressed his support for the reform while voicing his concerns about the heavy monetary burden the reform will force upon the county.

“These are sound reforms for defendants. However, the implementation of this reform comes with a price. The state has mandated that each county fund the entire cost of these changes,” Rios said. “These costs will be significant. Middlesex County alone could pay up to $2.5 million in overtime [for] additional staff, benefits and training. The New Jersey Association of Counties has stated that it will likely cost county governments statewide a total of about $29 million to implement the program.”

Rios said the county has adopted a resolution called the County Government Criminal Justice Reform Administration Fund, insisting that individuals who use the court system should share in the costs to implement the new bail reform.

“Middlesex County has adopted a resolution requesting funding from the state of New Jersey and advising that it is appropriate for those individuals who use the court system to share in the costs of implementing the reforms,” Rios said. “This resolution seeking the establishment of the County Government Criminal Justice Reform Administration Fund has been submitted to the governor, the New Jersey State Legislature, the Senate president, the Budget chairs of both houses of the Legislature and the Assembly speaker.”

Rios asks citizens to contact their local legislators and request state assistance to provide funding for the bail and speedy trial reform.

For more information, visit www.njcourts.gov/criminal/cjr/index.html.

Contact Vashti Harris at vharris@gmnews.com.