Last week the state judiciary reported that New Jersey’s historic reform that all but eliminated the posting of bail has yielded substantial criminal justice benefits in its first two years.
State Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner said the reform has “reduced the unnecessary detention of low-risk defendants, ensured community safety, upheld constitutional principles and preserved the integrity of the criminal justice system.”
The jail population in the state is down by about 6,000 from before the reform. Overall time defendants spend in jail has dropped 40 percent and those released before trial are out of jail in half the time it took previously, less than four days.
Worries that defendants released without posting bail would fail to show up for court or be more likely to commit new offenses largely have proved unfounded. Both actions saw slight but not meaningful increases from the period prior to bail reform.
As of the start of 2017, the release of defendants has no longer been determined by whether they could post bail money (to be returned upon showing up for trial). That kept many in jail simply because they couldn’t raise the necessary money.
Instead, judges review assessments of whether defendants pose a risk to public safety and preliminary law-enforcement reports, and decide within 48 hours of arrest whether to detain or release them. They also consider recommendations from prosecutors, if any.
The reform also resulted in more defendants being issued complaint summonses to appear in court, instead of being arrested and jailed. Summonses covered about half of defendants in 2014 but nearly three-quarters under the reforms begun in 2017. That less disrupts the lives of low-risk defendants while their cases are being processed and judged.
A panel of federal appellate judges last year rejected a challenge to New Jersey’s bail reform and said it includes extensive safeguards to ensure a defendant’s due-process rights.
Although the new system is working well, the state’s criminal justice community must continue to monitor it and recommend adjustments as needed. That already showed its value in the first year, when it prompted the state attorney general to direct prosecutors to seek detention in more cases, including those involving gun crimes and sex offenses. The effect of that was seen in last week’s report, which showed a 7.8 percent increase in the number of defendants detained for trial in 2018.
Atlantic County Prosecutor Damon G. Tyner pointed out another weakness of the new procedure seen in this area. Some low-level shoplifting and nonviolent drug offenders upon release have been “arrested for the same offense repeatedly within the same week, only to be released to commit the same behavior,” he said.
Perhaps increased penalties are needed for offenses committed while on pretrial release or awaiting trial on a summons. Maybe repeat offenses should trigger a determination of whether an additional release is warranted.
Overall, bail reform seems to be working well. It is delivering the fairer justice system it promised, if not yet the potential savings from reducing the prison population.