The intricacies of New Jersey's bail system have been in the news recently. Gov. Chris Christie has reiterated his call for a constitutional amendment that would allow a judge to deny bail and detain a defendant who is deemed a threat to society. Meanwhile, a study by the Drug Policy Alliance has found that 40 percent of those in county jails - many of whom are facing minor, nonviolent charges - have been granted bail but are unable to post it.
Taken together, Christie's proposal, which we cautiously endorsed a year ago, and the Drug Policy Alliance study would seem to point to a bail system in need of reform.
New Jersey is keeping too many nonviolent defendants in jail pending trial - at a cost to taxpayers of roughly $30,000 a year per defendant - because these defendants cannot afford to pay even nominal bail amounts.
Meanwhile, judges - according to Christie - lack an effective means to keep violent, career criminals off the streets while they are awaiting trial.
These are two separate issues, but they do suggest that in some ways, New Jersey might have it backward.
According to the Drug Policy Alliance, 12 percent of the state's county jail population - approximately 1,500 inmates - remain locked up because they cannot pay bail amounts of less than $2,500; some 800 defendants remain jailed because they cannot pay bail amounts of less than $500, the study said.
Bail is set on a sliding scale based on the type of criminal charges, but Roseanne Scotti, the alliance's New Jersey director, said the end result is that people charged with relatively minor offenses languish for months in jail because they cannot come up with relatively paltry amounts. And the longer they remain locked up pending trial, the more it costs taxpayers.
Meanwhile, Christie is focused on the problem of violent career criminals who are released on bail and go on to commit additional crimes.
Under the New Jersey Constitution, everyone arrested for a crime - with the exception of some murder defendants - is legally entitled to be released on bail. And in setting the bail amount, judges are not supposed to be punitive; the sole purpose of bail is to ensure the accused shows up for trial.
Practically speaking, New Jersey judges can and do set high bails just to keep violent criminals off the streets. But Christie's plan would enshrine pretrial detention in the state constitution and bring the state more in line with the federal system, where judges are not required to grant bail to virtually every defendant.
These are complicated issues with wide ramifications. But they do suggest that it may be time for the Legislature to focus on an overhaul of New Jersey's bail system.