Over the past year, there has been increased national attention on the role cash bail plays in the criminal justice system. In almost all jurisdictions around the country, decisions about who is released pending trial are currently based on the ability to pay bail and not on the risk to the community.
Those with money can purchase their freedom, regardless of their risk to the community, while those without resources remain in jail pending trial for days, month or years, often with tragic consequences, as in the cases of Sandra Bland and Kalief Browder.
The Drug Policy Alliance’s 2013 report on New Jersey jails found that nearly three-quarters of the 15,000 people in state jails were awaiting trial rather than serving a sentence – almost 20 percent of them arrested on drug charges. Almost 40 percent of those being held were there solely because of their inability to pay bail. More than 10 percent could not pay bail amounting to $2,500 or less (more than 800 inmates were held for the inability to pay $500 or less). The average length of time they spend in jail awaiting trial is 10 months.
Recognition of this injustice and the economic costs to the state led New Jersey to fix its broken system. In 2014, New Jersey enacted legislation that drastically overhauled the monetary bail system by creating a fairer, safer and more cost-effective criminal justice system.
Bail reform in New Jersey does a few things. First, it prioritizes non-monetary release options and requires arrestees to undergo a validated risk assessment before their initial bail hearing in order for the court to make an individualized determination about release. There is also a provision of the law that allows for the pretrial detention of truly dangerous individuals. These components of the reform will help move New Jersey from a resource-based system – in which people with money are able to pay their way out of jail regardless of their risk to public safety, while poor people who pose no risk are forced to languish behind bars while awaiting trial – to one based on risk.
Second, the reform establishes a comprehensive pretrial services agency within each county that can monitor and counsel those individuals who are released pending trial. We know that spending even just a few days incarcerated can have a devastating impact on an individual and his or her family. By creating a system that allows people to remain in the community while awaiting trial, New Jersey is making an investment in families and communities. And finally, the law guarantees timelines for a speedy trial for those who are detained.
As localities around the country grapple with overcrowded jails and jurisdictions are being constitutionally challenged for detaining people because they are poor, more and more states have their eyes on New Jersey. A number of jurisdictions have even followed suit – in November, voters in New Mexico passed a constitutional amendment to reform the state’s monetary bail system, and in December, municipal courts in fifty cities in Alabama adopted bail reform measures.
Bail reform in New Jersey is a historic overhaul of a very broken criminal justice system. New Jersey should stand proud as a leader on this issue as we head into 2017.