New Jersey's system of setting bail is one of the most unjust parts of our justice system. If you have money, you can usually get out of jail on bail, even if you are charged with a serious or violent crime. If you are too poor to afford to post bail, you can languish in jail awaiting trial, even on nonviolent or minor charges.
Also, judges are prohibited from considering how dangerous a defendant may be. New Jersey's bail system is focused on ensuring that the defendant appears for trial, and judges' bail decisions are based on the defendant's flight risk.
Last week, a committee appointed by Chief Justice Stuart Rabner issued a thick report recommending ways to improve the bail system and reduce delays in bringing cases to trial.
The 26-member panel, consisting of lawyers, prosecutors and judges, recommended amending the state constitution to allow New Jersey judges to consider public safety when setting bail. In practice, judges often do set high bail to keep violent criminals behind bars, but the amendment would give them more discretion and bring New Jersey more in line with the federal system. Currently, under the New Jersey Constitution, defendants charged with any crime - except some murder charges - are presumed to be entitled to be released on bail.
The panel also recommended changing state law so that any defendant held for more than six months without a trial would have to be released. This is one way to address the shameful fact that the poorest defendants - many of them minorities - can sit in jail for long periods without a trial simply because they lack the funds to make bail.
Last year, a Drug Policy Alliance study found that 40 percent of the people in county jails awaiting trial had been granted bail but could not afford it. Twelve percent were there because they couldn't meet bail of $2,500 or less.
The sticking point here is that speedier trials may require more judges, prosecutors and larger staffs at a time when there isn't much money available for expanding the public workforce. The tradeoff is that shorter pretrial waiting periods and fewer poor defendants in jails should mean savings for county governments. It costs about $30,000 a year to keep a defendant locked up.
Giving judges more discretion to hold violent offenders - who might go after victims or witnesses - is a reform Gov. Chris Christie has been seeking for several years. It deserves support, as do the other recommendations in the panel's report.
We urge lawmakers to get busy and turn these reforms into law.