UNION COUNTY — On any given day in New Jersey more than 10,000 people sit in jail, not because they are dangerous but because they cannot make bail.
At the same time, more dangerous and violent criminals easily make bail and are out on the street, sometimes within hours.
Legislation passed earlier this month will change all that and fix this system; it will also will save the county as much as $4 million each year.
Bail reform was desperately needed in New Jersey.
Currently, anyone arrested is assigned a bail amount that is predetermined using a statewide bail schedule, regardless of financial circumstances. This system has failed to take into account that violent criminals financially able to post large bail sums are let back onto the street, while poorer defendants — who pose no risk to their communities — are stuck in jail simply because they cannot afford bail set at less than $2,500.
More importantly, until this legislation passed two weeks ago, there was no process in place to make individual determinations of the actual risk posed by defendants to the community and whether they were at risk of new offences if granted release.
Last year, Luminosity, an organization that works with jails across the country, and which has also been instrumental in helping the county during the last several years to pare down jail expenses, released a report that found the vast majority of people incarcerated in New Jersey county jails are actually awaiting trial. In other words, they have not been found guilty or convicted of a crime, yet remain in jail for an average of 10 months because of administrative backlogs and an overburdened court system.
According to Luminosity’s March 2013 report, the New Jersey court system is a complex organization, with 21 counties operating 22 county facilities and housing 15,000 inmates on a daily basis. Of interest is that nearly three-fourths of inmates were being held pending trial or sentencing.
Luminosity found that while the average inmate spent 314 days in jail before trial, 40 percent had the option to post bail but lacked the financial resources to do so. Twelve percent of those were being held solely due to an inability to pay bail set at $2,500 or less.
Interestingly, more than half the individuals held in all New Jersey county jails were being held on nonviolent charges. The passage of this two-phased bill will put in motion changes to this scenario.
There are two components to the bail reform legislation.
The first will actually amend the constitution to allow judges the discretion to deny bail to violent criminals pending trial. This component of the legislation bail reform package will be on the November general election ballot for voter approval.
This new legislation shifts New Jersey’s antiquated bail system from a money-based system to a risk-based one, ensuring that those arrested will be evaluated to determine the danger they pose to the general public.
Judges will be able to deny pretrial release to certain defendants on an individual basis, after determining no amount of bail — or other conditions such as no-contact orders, reporting requirements or electronic monitoring — could reasonably assure a defendant would not commit another crime.
Gov. Chris Christie believes this change was a long time coming.
“We need to give judges the discretion to look at a defendant’s record and say enough is enough,” Christie said in his speech last week after legislators easily passed the bail reform package.
The second component, which does not need voter approval and therefore will not be on the November ballot, sets guidelines for determining bail eligibility while allowing the creation of bail alternatives for those charged with nonviolent crimes.
This facet of the legislation was signed into law by Christie on Monday afternoon.
The New Jersey Department of Corrections will now set the criteria, and change could be under way by the beginning of the year.
The governor strongly supported the rights of indigent defendants charged with minor or nonviolent crimes who are being required to post bail they cannot afford, leading to months spent in jail with charges pending against them.
“This is a system that has failed,” Christie previously said. “It amounts to a debtors’ prison. That is not a fair and just system. It’s failing the people it is supposed to serve.”
The New Jersey American Civil Liberties Union also stood firmly behind the new legislation, remarking in a statement how this will impact the state criminal justice system.
“Today’s vote by the Assembly marks a historic moment for civil rights in New Jersey, one made possible through years of careful deliberation and hard work from advocates, lawmakers and stakeholders alike,” the ACLU said, adding the bail reform package, “will curb a longstanding injustice faced by poor people and disproportionately, by people of color, who are often held in jail for months and even years, not because they are dangerous or likely to flee but because they can’t afford the bail.”
Brian Riordan, the Union County director of correctional services, explained late last week how this would significantly change the way things are now handled on his turf.
“After this reform, if an individual is remanded to the custody of the county jail, they would be vetted for eligibility. They may even spend a night or two in jail, but not weeks or months like before because they could not post a bail set at $5,000 or under,” Riordan explained.
This portion of the bill does authorize increased court fees to help pay for the changes of risk assessment and monitoring, but legislators indicated the fee increase won’t be enough to cover the costs of implementing the reforms.
As director of the county jail, Riordan has seen it all. Like all those charged with overseeing the incarcerated, this director is well aware that individuals who commit low-level crimes often sit in jail for weeks or even months because they cannot make bail.
However, the law is the law. Until New Jersey passed the bail reform package, the court system had no other choice but to put people in jail if they were unable to make minimum bail.
Union County Freeholder Chris Hudak explained how devastating this can be to these people and their families.
“Say someone is picked up for shoplifting for the first time. They can’t make bail so they end up in jail, can’t go to work, can’t pay their rent, or their bills, and their families are left without a provider. This spins things in another direction, where taxpayers have to support the families because they have no other means of support,” said the freeholder.
Not to mention the cost of housing individuals who committed low-level crimes.
“It costs $200 a day to house a prisoner and that’s huge,” Hudak added, explaining that setting up release criteria for those charged with low-level crimes and letting them out on their own recognizance until trial could save a considerable number of tax dollars.
“This could be a game-changer for us,” Hudak added. Riordan agreed.
“There are other ways of handling low-level crimes, including house arrest,” he said, pointing out that those charged could wear an ankle or wrist device that monitors where they are at all times.
“The cost of this is $5 a day compared to $200. We can easily plug in the criteria allowing these individuals to go to work while under house arrest,” Riordan said, estimating at least 5 to 10 percent of the county jail population right now has had bail set at $5,000 or less but could not post it.
Should these low-level offenders not take their freedom seriously, the end result might not be to their liking.
“Individuals who can’t abide by the criteria set for them, we have room at the inn for you,” the county jail director said. However, he strongly believes that responsible individuals should be given the chance to prove themselves.
“We have college-age people wearing these devices,” Riordan said.
However, he stressed that while there are individuals who will never get out of jail — and should not — low-level crimes should be dealt with in a way that does not destroy the fabric of a person’s life.
Hudak thinks the county could save a considerable sum with the new bail reform package and, in turn, taxpayers will reap the benefits.
“A 5- to 10-percent savings could result in $2 to 4 million in savings,” he said, but mentioned that even a quarter of that would benefit taxpayers.