Hiccups Amid Implementation of Bail Reform

By Michael Hill

The first day of pretrial detention hearings under bail reform that started Jan. 1 had plenty of hiccups with Judge Ronald Wigler telling NJTV News, “This is all new. There are a lot of moving parts.”

The judge, Acting Essex Prosecutor Carolyn Murray, Trial Court Administrator Amy DePaul and lawyers and staff all huddling more than a football team for most of the day and sometimes behind a closed door.

What was to start at 9 this morning, started just after 3 this afternoon. Nine defendants Essex prosecutors had wanted detained.

But, not one had an actual hearing where prosecutors were to present clear and convincing evidence that each defendant was either a risk for coming back to court or a risk to commit another crime if released. Repeatedly, defense attorney Susan Friedman said this to the judge preventing any hearing on the facts.

“It was not provided with discovery at the time of the arraignment. It was provided today, in the middle of the day, and I haven’t had the opportunity to review it carefully with Mr. Adams,” she said.

Why the delay in detention hearings?

“Another thing that we changed is we have gone from a paper-based system in Essex County to an electronic-based system and that happened in a new way Jan. 1. So some of the things that would typically happen in courts with paper are not currently happening. So we are both discussing what it is that it truly discoverable at this stage and we have provided what we believe is discoverable for all the matters we filed on today,” Murray said.

Based on today, the system has plenty of kinks to work out moving from a money-based one for bail to assessing a defendant’s risk of coming back to answer charges and risk of re-offending.

“I think that’s the great benefit by this, is that you’re removing a monetary bail, which all the studies that have been shown to us since we’ve been perusing this shows that it really doesn’t result in more people coming to court than it does otherwise. So you’re taking something out that was shown to be ineffectual anyway,” said Essex Public Defender Bill Fitzsimmons.

Voters and lawmakers approved bail reform. Now it’s a matter of improving the mechanics.