Officials Want Bail Reform Changes

By Michael Hill

“Young people having access to guns and how they are treated in this system. It is an immediate danger and immediate risk and something that we could correct immediately as well,” said Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop.

Fulop — flanked by police brass, state lawmakers and the Hudson County Prosecutor — said it was time to reform bail reform, a system that assesses an arrested person’s threat to public safety among other factors to determine detention until trial or release, wiping out for the most part monetary bail.

Fulop cited the revolving-door case of Chaz Morris with multiple convictions — arrested in January for burglary and released a day later, arrested Feb. 12 with a loaded gun in a stolen car but released the next day and arrested Feb. 18 at an intersection with a loaded 357.

The mayor said state statistics show more than half the gun arrests since the beginning of bail reform Jan. 1 have resulted in courts releasing the accused.

“This clearly is a problem that needs to be corrected,” Fulop said.

“We are absolutely at one of the points where we say to ourselves this is not working,” said Hudson County Prosecutor Esther Suarez.

“It was never designed to put people out on the streets who was a danger to the community,” said Sen. Sandra Cunningham.

State Sens. Brian Stack and Cunningham plan to introduce legislation to close what they see as a loophole. It reads: “Under this bill, if a court finds probable cause that a defendant committed unlawful possession of a firearm — a Graves Act offense — there would be a rebuttable presumption that the person is to be detained pending trial…”

But, when challenged that the bill seems to propose reverting to the old bail system and locking up defendants without bail and trampling on their constitutional rights, among the responses: the bill puts the burden on the accused.

“And it’ll be on the defendant or defense counsel to prove to the judge that the person should not be detained, is not a danger to the community,” Suarez said.

“I think it’s a common sense approach, that if somebody has a gun, it’s not registered, it’s an illegal weapon, they’re carrying it around with them, nothing good is going to come out of that,” Stack said.

With this criticism of bail reform, supporters have hit a fork in the road — some of them saying tweak it, others saying not so fast.

“It’s going to lock more people up based on the mayor and the legislators’ hunch that this is violent rather than looking at the tool that we have that actually, based on hundreds of thousands of pieces of evidence, predicts violence,” said ACLU of New Jersey Senior Staff Attorney Alexander Shalom.

“Preventative detention is something that should be really rarely used because the government is taking your freedom. And so you want to make sure that there’s a really good reason for that. And you really are balancing the danger to the community with people’s civil rights. And if you start adding offenses like this, what’s to keep us from adding more and more offenses until we go back to the same old system?” said Drug Policy Alliance State Director Rosanne Scotti.

Both sides agree bail reform is an improvement over the monetary system and it has its imperfections, but the question is how far should lawmakers go to make it a more perfect system for the sake of public safety?