By Erin Delmore
Senate President Steve Sweeney is taking steps to implement historic bail reform in New Jersey by adding 20 judges to the court system. He said the extra resources are needed in the effort to move from cash bail to a risk-based system on Jan. 1.
“It’s about justice,” said Sweeney. “Why should someone be stuck in jail for up to 10 months waiting for a trial because they’re poor?”
Under the new system, the state will weigh a defendant’s risk to the community when deciding whether to release him or her before trial. Most of the country uses monetary bail — which criminal justice reform advocates say warehouses poor, nonviolent people for months — before they’re even rendered a verdict.
Roseanne Scotti of the Drug Policy Alliance said, “Three-quarters of the people who are sitting in our jails as we speak are there not serving a sentence, but awaiting trial. The average length of time is 10 months, it’s not a few days, it’s not a few weeks, it’s 10 months. They lose jobs, they lose housing, they lose time with their family. Forty percent of them are there solely because they don’t have often nominal amounts of bail.”
Studies show this disproportionately affects African-Americans and Latinos. They make up almost 75 percent of people in jail awaiting trial, according to a study by Luminosity and the Drug Policy Alliance of New Jersey.
“Money bail does nothing to ensure public safety. And it does nothing to ensure the people get back to court. What it does is warehouse tens of thousands of people in this state who don’t have the money to pay that,” said Scotti.
Earlier this month, state lawmakers balked at the cost of implementing bail reform and drafted a bill to restore monetary bail. Sweeney said, in no uncertain terms: it’s a no-go.
He said, “There’s been a discussion about moving forward but going back to cash bail. We’re not going to support that initiative in the Senate.”
New Jersey is poised to become a national model by assessing a defendant’s risk to the community via a computerized public safety assessment. Come Jan. 1, that risk assessment must be done within 48 hours. Judge Glenn Grant says the goal is to make the decision on someone’s release within 24 hours.
“We will be one of only a handful of states that will have the statewide capacity to process the defendant’s arrest electronically, to move to indictment, to move to case processing, to move to monitoring all the way through probation, all in an electronic format,” said Grant.
Sweeney said the state will fund its new judges through a $9.3 million state budget appropriation. That will bring the total number of judges in the state to 463, the largest number in nearly a decade.