Voters Have Opportunity to Fix New Jersey’s Broken Bail System

Trenton—Advocates across the state have launched a campaign to support Public Question No. 1 on November 4th. Public Question No. 1 asks voters to change the New Jersey Constitution to give judges the ability to deny bail to dangerous suspects and will usher in comprehensive bail reform in New Jersey.

The proposed Constitutional Amendment also authorizes the Legislature to pass laws to operationalize the amendment—an important action that the Legislature has already accomplished. At the same time that the Legislature passed the resolution to put the bail reform question to the voters, it also passed, with bi-partisan support, groundbreaking legislation to comprehensively reform New Jersey’s broken bail system. This legislation only goes into effect if the Constitutional amendment on the ballot wins a majority on November 4th.

New Jersey’s bail system is broken. A report released early last year found that on any given day, nearly 75 percent of the 15,000 individuals in New Jersey jails are awaiting trial rather than serving a sentence. The average length of pretrial incarceration for these individuals is more than ten months. Nearly 40 percent of the total jail population has the option to post bail but lacks the financial resources to do so and more than 10 percent of individuals could secure their release pending trial with $2,500 or less. More than half of the individuals in New Jersey jails are there on nonviolent charges.

Over the last two years criminal justice reform advocates, including the Drug Policy Alliance, the NAACP, the ACLU and the Integrated Justice Alliance and faith leaders waged a campaign to pass legislation to reform the system. The campaign was successful and Governor Christie signed the bill in August. Now advocates are pushing for the final step in the process—voter approval of the Constitutional Amendment.

“New Jersey’s bail system is broken,” says Roseanne Scotti, New Jersey State Director for Drug Policy Alliance. “It makes no sense morally or economically to warehouse thousands of individuals for months on end while they await trial if those individuals pose no risk to the community. At the same time our system lets dangerous offenders buy their way out of jail if they have enough money. On November 4th, voters have a chance to fix this system to make it safer and fairer for all.”

This legislation, which will become effective if the Amendment passes, accomplishes several key reforms including protecting the rights of those denied bail by requiring prosecutors to prove the case for pretrial detention by clear and convincing evidence and mandating clear timelines for speedy trial. The legislation also implements wide-ranging and long-needed reforms including encouraging non-monetary release options for low-risk individuals; establishing a system under which pretrial release decisions are based on risk rather than resources; requiring arrestees to undergo a risk assessment before their initial bail hearing in order for the court to make individualized determinations of what conditions of release are appropriate; establishing a pretrial services unit within the court system that will provide the appropriate level of monitoring and counseling for those awaiting trial.

Advocates are working in various ways to get the word out to voters about Public Question No. 1. At the recent NAACP conference, bail reform was a major part of the discussions, with Senate President Steve Sweeney and Governor Chris Christie both addressing the issue. NAACP NJ President Richard Smith, who stood beside Governor Christie during the signing of the bill, says “The dream of bail bond reform is at hand. It is now up to us to make bail bond reform a reality by voting “YES” on November 4th. Let’s – together – fix this broken system once and for all.”

Clergy across the state are also discussing the importance of voting yes to reform the state’s broken bail system. Rev. Dr. M. William Howard, Jr., pastor of Newark’s Bethany Baptist Church, who testified during a statehouse hearing on bail reform, says, “Approval of Public Question No. 1 will create a system that will better protect the rights of countless individuals who are incarcerated simply because they cannot afford to pay their way out of jail. It would guarantee safer communities by authorizing the absolute detention of dangerous defendants. And it would benefit the state by mitigating the major financial burdens associated with unnecessary detention and excessive rates of incarceration.”