LAW & PUBLIC SAFETY

Report: Jail population drops as a result of bail reform

BY Michael Hill, Correspondent |

There’s one statistic you won’t find in the new report on New Jersey nearly ending its cash bail system: the number of bail bond agents driven out of business.

Bail bondsman Kirk Shaw is writing less compared to 2016 before bail reform started.

“It’s maybe 5% or less of what it was,” said Shaw.

New Jersey reformed its bail system after a study found a high percentage of those arrested stayed in jail because they simply could not afford bail and that seemed to contradict the standard of “innocent until proven guilty.”

Two years ago, judges began setting bail in only a few circumstances. To decide whether to release defendants before trial, courts assess risks of defendants showing up to court, of threatening communities and of committing crime if freed.

While critics argue “getting out of jail free” would drive up crime and lead to defendants skipping hearings and trials, a new report from the Administrative Office of the Courts suggest otherwise.

It says defendants are “no more likely to commit a new offense or fail to show up for a court appearance than defendants released under the prior system of monetary bail.”

“The two biggest things that we are trying to address in bail reform is keeping the most dangerous, most violent, highest-risk offenders locked up so they couldn’t pay their way out with money bail, and not having low-risk, but poor people locked up needlessly,” said Elie Honig, former director of the Division of Criminal Justice within the Attorney General’s Office.

The AOC report also shows a higher percentage of defendants were hit with disorderly persons charges on release in 2017 than 2014. Also, the report shows that early screening and objective information are leading to the release of more low-risk defendants with summonses or citations instead of warrants. Most people arrested on warrants are released within 24 to 48 hours. Those sent to jail now spend fewer days there than in 2014 on average. Judges ordered bail in only 102 cases – mostly for violating release conditions, out of more than 44,000 cases.

The acting administrative courts director, Judge Glenn Grant, said in a statement, “The state’s jails now largely include those defendants who present a significant risk of flight or danger to the community. Low-risk defendants who lack the financial resources to post bail are now released.”

The ACLU applauds the report.

“The biggest takeaway is that you can safely reduce the number of people who are in jail without compromising public safety or court appearance rates,” said Alexander Shalom, senior supervising attorney at ACLU-NJ.

The ACLU says studies show crime has not risen with 6,000 fewer people in jail now compared to 2012. But bail bond agents say the streets are not safer.

“It makes me wonder why we’re not laying off sheriff officers, judges, and so forth and even police if there’s less crime. The truth is there’s not less crime. What was a crime two and three years ago is no longer a crime,” said Dan Callahan, Managing Partner of Callahan Bail Bonds.

The ACLU says the state report shows a nagging issue that needs to change: a high percentage of African Americans locked up.

The office of the courts also concludes bail reform needs better, more permanent funding to fulfill its mission, and it needs it soon.