Lawmakers Consider Amending Bail Reform Law, Which Takes Effect Jan. 1

By Brenda Flanagan

“All eyes are frankly on New Jersey right now,” said ACLU of New Jersey Senior Staff Attorney Alex Shalom.

Dramatic testimony today at a Judiciary Committee hearing to amend New Jersey’s brand new bail reform law, before it even takes effect. The nationally praised reforms virtually eliminate money bail that critics say currently keeps poor people sitting in jail for 10 months on average awaiting trial just because they can’t make bail. But New Jersey’s counties and courts now claim they can’t afford to enact these reforms next year. So lawmakers proposed putting money bail back into the law. Advocates raged.

“There’s something fundamentally different and fundamentally disgusting about a Legislature saying, ‘You know, we don’t have enough money right now for this bail reform, so what are we going to do? Are we going to put more money in it? No! We’re going to concede defeat,'” Shalom said.

“Bail reform hasn’t even been implemented, and we’re already talking about, ‘We don’t have enough money,'” said Drug Policy Alliance Senior Director Roseanne Scotti.

Instead of using money bail, the new law relies on risk assessment to determine whether it’s safe to let the accused go free, pending trial, but that takes more court staff and sheriff’s officers — possibly costing five times or more the $22 million initially budgeted by the administration. New Jersey’s Association of Counties warned it will file an unfunded mandate complaint unless the state kicks in more dollars. Atlantic County estimates it’ll need an extra $2 million to $4 million.

“For Atlantic County, our prosecutors came to us in June of this year, and told us they would need X amount more people, more sheriff’s officers. The taxpayers of our county cannot take one more brick on their back,” said Altlantic County Freeholder Chairman Frank Formica.

Here’s the proposed fix. Sponsors argued, restoring money bail would keep costs down by avoiding backlogs. Those who could make bail would just pay it and depart — leaving truly indigent detainees to be assessed and released within 48 hours. Less staff, less costs.

“All of those individuals who can’t afford monetary bail are going to have the system of pre-trial release or pre-trial supervision or ROR or whatever that judge determines, based on the matrix. Doesn’t change a thing,” said Assemblyman John McKeon.

The bail bond industry, of course, supports restoring it to the system. The Administrative Office of the Courts deeply disagrees.

“Two persons, charged with the same offense, one with money, one without. One gets out, one stays in jail and is subjected to other procedures. These are the bases of these civil rights class action lawsuits around the country,” said Dan Phillips, legislative liaison to the Aministrative Office of the Courts.

The AOC has spent months gearing up to implement new bail reforms and argued the system cannot do both.

“To re-engineer that infrastructure will double the cost of the system. It’s one system or the other,” Phillips said.

The Judiciary Committee voted to release the bill, although some lawmakers expressed reservations.

“I’m not convinced that cost really should be playing a role in this discussion,” said Assemblywoman Elizabeth Muoio.

Sponsors say they’ll hold more hearings and amend the bills if necessary, but the clock is ticking. Bail reform kicks in Jan. 1, and that’s created a deep sense of urgency.