The Sixth Amendment of the Bill of Rights is supposed to guarantee speedy trials. But as anyone who has been involved in our court system knows, the process can be anything but speedy. The amendment doesn't say anything about legal proceedings being affordable, but if it did, we'd be missing that mark as well.
In his annual speech before the New Jersey State Bar Association this month, N.J. Chief Justice Stuart Rabner said he wants to take on both problems. Rabner said he is forming two committees to search for ways to make New Jersey's court proceedings - both criminal and civil - more affordable and speedier. The committees will be made up of judges, prosecutors, public defenders and private attorneys.
The problems go to the heart of the fairness of our system. Defendants who can't afford bail can languish in county jails as pretrial proceedings drag on. Plaintiffs who can't afford what Rabner called "the growing cost of pretrial discovery" are at a disadvantage in civil cases.
Rabner, who is in charge of running New Jersey's courts, cited examples from other states that are experimenting with putting limits on the number of depositions and interrogatories before a trial and even on the overall length of trials.
One of the most important issues the committee looking at criminal trials will examine is the state's bail system. Rabner referred to a recent report by the Drug Policy Alliance, which took a snapshot of the 13,000 inmates in New Jersey jails on a single day last October.
The report found that nearly 40 percent of inmates were awaiting trial in jail because they couldn't afford to post bail. For 12 percent of inmates, bail was set at $2,500 or less. And 800 defendants were in jail because they couldn't pay $500 or less. As we've said before, there has to be a better way.
It costs state taxpayers about $30,000 to keep a single defendant in jail for a year. And the cost is also high for the families of these defendants - both in terms of lost wages and in the emotional cost of separation. Rabner suggested the committee might consider other forms of pretrial release for less serious offenses.
The committee should also make recommendations about Gov. Chris Christie's proposal to give judges more discretion in denying bail to particularly dangerous defendants, a change that would require an amendment to the state's constitution. It makes sense to look at both these changes together.
Some recommendations of the judicial committees will likely be things the courts can change administratively. Other changes will require legislation.
By looking at our judicial system comprehensively, these committees can help guide that legislation and can help bring our courts closer to the ideal of speedy - and affordable - justice.