Mixed Opinions on Rollout of New Jersey Bail Reform

By Michael Hill

Seven weeks into bail reform, a system that eliminates a monetary bail and instead partly relies on computerized analytics to determine whether someone charged with a crime likely will commit another crime or skip court if released before trial. The state office administers it.

“Overall, I think the program is very successful. We have great coordination from prosecutors to public defenders,” said Judge Glenn Grant, acting administrative director of the New Jersey Administrative Office of the Courts.

But Grant says the system needs some tweaking. Leaders in Ocean County say it needs trashing and starting over.

“I don’t know what the answer is but there’s got to be a better answer than this because this isn’t an answer at all. This is way more than a problem we had on Dec. 31. It’s coming to critical mass. Somebody’s going to get hurt or killed,” said Little Egg Harbor Police Chief Richard Buzby.

The police chiefs here have called for repealing the bail reform law, saying it’s dangerous and one freeholder says it’s nothing but a get out of jail free card and the statewide ballot question in 2014 misled voters who approved it.

The last straw here appears to be 20-year-old Christopher Wilson, charged with another sex crime with a minor after two sex crime convictions when he was a juvenile. Prosecutors wanted him locked up until trial but a judge released him to home arrest and electronic monitoring. Little Egg Harbor Police went door to door to warn the public about the high-risk offender.

“My intent simply was to tell people to be careful. This would have never happened with bail reform. This guy, they make a big deal out of him wearing a bracelet. What is not generally known is that according to our understanding, he was wearing a bracelet at the time of the offense and it didn’t stop it then so we had no reasonable belief it would stop it now. I’m absolutely not comfortable. It’s not proper that he’s in the community at all,” Buzby said.

It’s rare under bail reform for judges to set bail, but 23-year-old Dawud Ward has one for $50,000 and a bench warrant for his arrest. Ward is wanted in five breaking and entering and grand larceny convictions in Virginia and is wanted in five New Jersey counties for burglary. Under bail reform, judges have released him not once, but twice. Police say a day after a Middlesex County judge set him free, Ward was freely targeting a middle-class neighborhood in Cranford and he burglarized another house.

One police officer says Ward’s case is a good one to focus on because it shows bail reform doesn’t work.

“If you want to ensure that nobody commits an offense, you would lock them all up — which is not the program that we are talking about,” Grant said.

Ward’s slipping through the cracks is described as a “slip up” that’s been corrected. The state Administrative Office of the Courts says as of last week, 378 defendants have been held without bail until trial but would have been entitled to bail, release and no supervision under the old system.

“Any fair-minded person would see that the new system is more effective and provides a greater opportunity for community safety than under the old system,” Grant said.

The state says nearly 3,100 out of 26,000 defendants committed another crime out on bail last year but it’s too early to compare those stats to this year.

Grant insists at least the new system puts conditions on those released under newly created pretrial services units. As of Feb. 14, 3,100 released defendants became supervised — ranging from agreeing to come back to court to monthly in-office visits or phone calls to weekly in-office visits and home arrest and electronic monitoring like Christopher Wilson.

“For the first time in our state’s history, we now have created a cadre of staff that’s responsible for managing that person out on pretrial release,” Grant said.

The president of the County Prosecutors Association of New Jersey, Richard Burke in Warren County — where some defendants have failed to show for court — calls bail reform “a work in progress” and says it’s “probably more even handed with regards to how we treat defendants” but it needs tweaking.

The Middlesex County prosecutor, in the throes of dealing with a revolving door in the Dawud Ward case — through a spokesperson — says, “He doesn’t want to discuss bail reform.”

A bail bondsman created a website and is among the critics who say the concept of bail reform is wonderful but the practice of it is “worse than anyone imagined.” They point out the old system allowed for releases without bail but they concede that option was hardly used while some defendants stayed locked up for months and years before trial because they couldn’t even afford a percentage of $2,500 to get out of jail.

“If anyone says to you that some system is going to guarantee that everyone is going to stay out of trouble, then they’re lying to you. If anybody says to you that every system will ensure that the individual will show up to court, then they are lying to you. We’re creating a system that creates the best opportunity for those individuals to show up to court and to stay out of trouble,” Grant said.

As the judicial system works out the early kinks of bail reform, it’s preparing for another phase of the law: cases that must go before grand juries in March and then head to speedy trials.