The crowding in New Jersey jails is expensive and a sweeping bill to overhaul the system is on its way to Gov. Chris Christie’s desk. The bill’s sponsor is Deputy Speaker Assemblyman John Burzichelli and he told NJTV News Anchor Mary Alice Williams that the world has changed a great deal since the Constitution last looked at the issue of bail.
The bill would let non-violent offenders get out of jail free and allow judges to deny bail to people accused of serious charges. When asked how that all works, Burzichelli said the Risk Assessment System would allow a person to be released under certain conditions because right now people can be released on their own recognizance and people can post cash bail. He said that those who cannot post cash bail and are not a risk to society are often detained longer than is healthy for anyone. He said that is one focus of the legislation, but the second part of the effort is to do a constitutional amendment that would allow a person to be held under certain circumstances, called pre-trial detention, so they would not even be eligible for a risk assessment or a cash bail and they would have to stay in jail. He said that is what has held up the legislation at this point because there are many that feel that if they are going to amend the Constitution to allow for pre-trial detention, the definition of speedy trial should be clarified.
“What we are suggesting at this juncture is that it would be 90 days to indictment, 180 days to trial. That can live in the legislation but there are some that feel that should be part of the constitutional question. There are two tracks here. We can go with the Risk Assessment Program, which would allow a person to within 48 hours have their circumstances reviewed and their release conditions decided. It could be anything from an ankle monitoring bracelet, it could be that you have to continue to pursue employment, could be that you have to pursue drug rehabilitation until you have to come to court, it could be simply released on your recognizance or cash bail,” said Burzichelli.
Burzichelli said that when a person sits longer than they otherwise would and they don’t know when they are going to get out, they are more likely to make a plea bargain deal and end up with an item on their record that maybe shouldn’t be there, that otherwise could have been handled in a different manner. He said then that person carries that weight and they become an even greater burden to society when they have trouble getting a job because they have a record that they otherwise may not have had.
When asked how the bill would save taxpayers money, Burzichelli said it costs money to incarcerate people. He said that the Constitution says that a citizen in New Jersey is entitled to bail that is not excessive. Burzichelli said that one is that it could be argued that if a person can’t post $300 bail then that in fact is excessive, though he stressed that the proposed legislation would not allow people accused of a violent act who are a threat to society out. He said ideally, they would be kept in jail until their trial date came or they would be managed in another way.
Prison wardens are in favor of the bill and Burzichelli said that they are being pragmatic. He said that the world has changed a great deal since the Constitution last looked at this issue and described what bail was. He said that some people are going to stay in jail because there are guilty people but the idea is to make it work so people are able to get out and continue their life until they have their trial date and if they are guilty, more permanent accommodations will be put in place.
The bill has backing from Christie and when asked how quickly the bill could go through, Burzichelli said, “It is complicated because there are two components. One is the constitutional question and to do that the legislature has to move before mid August. Right now, I would say that is in the 50/50 range. Then Pre-Trial Release Risk Assessment Program can be done legislatively but they are intentionally linked together and that doesn’t mean that they cannot be severed in the future if we don’t make the deadline on the constitutional question.”