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Report Suggests Giving Judges Power to Set ‘No Bail’ for Dangerous Defendants

3-21-14

By David Cruz
Correspondent

The report – by the Joint Committee on Criminal Justice – was charged by Chief Justice Stuart Rabner with finding ways to deal with issues related to bail and speedy trials. Glenn Grant is the Acting Administrative Director of the Courts. He says it’s going to take a criminal justice village to bring meaningful reform to the system.

“There will be required cooperation from the executive branch, from the legislature, prosecutors and public defenders in order for the program to operate,” said Grant. “The committee made sure in its recommendations that it had to be a comprehensive solution, that the idea of piecemeal solutions to try to improve our criminal justice system were no longer possible.”

The committee recommendations include a call for a constitutional amendment that would give judges the right to revoke bail or set no bail for defendants deemed to be a danger to the public. Jon Bramnick is a Republican Assemblyman and defense attorney who supports that recommendation.

“If the judge determines that you’re a potential violent criminal and there’s risk to society you’re staying in jail,” said Bramnick.

New Jersey has never given judges that power before, but Alex Shalom – a senior staff attorney with the ACLU in New Jersey – says the current system only allows for high bail amounts, which he calls disingenuous and intellectually dishonest.

“What the proposal says is let’s be honest about it and in a small subset of cases, where due process attaches, if a determination is made that that person is so dangerous that no condition or set of conditions will ensure that they’ll come back to court and that the community will stay safe, that person could be held without bail,” he said.

The committee noted that a 2012 study found that 12 percent of prisoners in county lockup were being held because they couldn’t come up with bail of $2,500 or less. The result: some defendants being held for months and even years because they can’t make bail.

“It offends our presumption of innocence whenever someone is forced to stay in jail before they’re convicted,” said Shalom. “It’s bad if we’re talking about days; it’s bad if we’re talking about weeks; it’s horrible if we’re talking about months. But the reality in New Jersey is that people are waiting years from the time they’re arrested until the time they go to trial and that’s simply unacceptable.”

The committee recommends putting some truth behind the phrase speedy trial by allowing judges to dismiss cases if the defendant hasn’t gotten to trial in 12 months.

While there is broad support for the recommendations, some dissenters criticized the committee for putting the onus on the legislature – rather than the judiciary – to give judges broader powers on bail, the suggestion being that left to lawmakers, reform could take as long as some of those so-called speedy trials.