In 2014, New Jersey worked out and enacted a nation-leading reform of its bail system for those accused of crimes.
It was an impressive accomplishment involving all three branches of government - proposals from the state Supreme Court; a push from Gov. Chris Christie, a former U.S. attorney; and three-fifths-majority passage by the state Legislature. Then voters approved the reform in a November referendum.
The reforms are on track to take effect at the start of next year and they look good. The core change will be in how a decision is made on whether to keep someone in jail pending trial.
In nearly all the rest of the nation, and in New Jersey for now, the release of an accused is based on the ability to pay bail - set at a level to ensure the defendant shows up for trial (bail is forfeited otherwise). Obviously, such a bail system favors those with enough money to purchase their freedom until their trial.
A survey by the Drug Policy Alliance in conjunction with the bail reform push found almost 40 percent of those held ahead of their trials were incarcerated because of their inability to pay bail, not because their release would pose a risk to the community. A 10th of them couldn't pay bail amounts of $2,500 or less, and 800 were being held for the inability to pay $500 or less.
The new system prioritizes release without bail for the least dangerous among the accused.
Starting Jan. 1, before those arrested get to bail hearings, they'll be given a risk assessment and an initial determination by a court. Pretrial detention will still be the choice for people deemed dangerous, but more will be released on their own recognizance.
Atlantic City Councilman Kaleem Shabazz, who organized a forum at the end of last month on the coming bail reform, said the risk assessment has worked well in the juvenile justice system for four years, where it has made decisions "race neutral."
The Pretrial Justice Institute says the risk assessment tools to be used "represent current best practices in providing safe, fair and effective pretrial justice" and "are reliable in predicting court appearance and public safety."
The bail reform act establishes pretrial services agencies within counties that can monitor and counsel those awaiting trial. It also requires speedier grand jury hearings and trials, which may well require more judicial system personnel (and the filling of empty Superior Court judgeships, especially in northern New Jersey).
Offsetting those added costs will be considerable savings from keeping fewer accused people in jail. The alliance figures it costs $100 a day to hold a person in jail, and the average time held pending trial in New Jersey is nearly a year.
One group on the losing end of reform seems to be the bail bondsmen, who work for private services that provide bail money to those arrested and monitor defendants to ensure they show up for trial and the loaned bail money is returned (with a fee).
Some awaiting trial will still be posting bail, but many more will be released without doing so. Bondsmen might want to apply for those county jobs monitoring those released.