A risk-based bail system would serve public safety in New Jersey: Opinion

With the Assembly recently granting final legislative approval to a bill that will reform the way bail is administered in New Jersey, our criminal justice system is poised for a much-needed 21st century overhaul.

During the legislative process, a number of concerns were raised about how these changes would impact poor, predominantly minority defendants. Some have sought to play on the tenets of racism and classism in an attempt to make this a wedge issue. At the end of the day, we were able to achieve what I believe is a crucial, healthy balance — a balance that blends public safety concerns with civil rights protections.

The changes we’ve approved take into account the concerns of law enforcement, judges and prosecutors while striving to make sure the system improves public safety and protects our families. Additionally, we hope to create a fairer and more equitable system for those who have traditionally been neglected and underserved.

From a public safety angle, these changes will keep violent predators off the streets by giving judges the discretion to deny bail for those charged with committing the harshest of crimes. A system that is risk-based, rather than one based on a defendant’s wealth, better protects public safety and saves taxpayer resources.

Without these changes, a violent drug dealer or a repeat domestic violence offender could be back on the streets in no time, free to commit more crimes, simply because they had the money to post bail, despite having a well-regarded tendency to reoffend. We have all been shocked and left angry over the many instances like this that we have seen in the news far too often.

With the historic reforms we just approved, those days will be over. This is a win for our communities and the families who worry every day about the safety of their children and loved ones in their neighborhoods.

Equally important, the new changes will employ professional risk assessments to determine if burdensome bail requirements should be reduced for nonviolent offenders. It’s this line of reasoning that has prompted U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to assessments.

As Holder pointed out at the 2011 National Symposium on Pretrial Justice, “Nearly two thirds of all inmates who crowd our county jails — at an annual cost of roughly nine billion taxpayer dollars — are defendants awaiting trial.”

It’s important to note that a large majority of these individuals are nonviolent, nonfelony offenders, charged with petty crimes, an overwhelmingly disproportionate number of whom are poor and forced to remain in custody because of the simple fact that they cannot afford to post the bail required to return to their normal lives until their trial.
As Holder went on to note, “The reality is that it doesn’t have to be this way. ... But, within the confines of the current system, we too often find ourselves with few — if any — viable alternatives to incarceration.”

This has been one of the great moral dilemmas of our generation and one of the reasons that prompted the Legislature to act on, and me to vote in favor of, these historic bail reform changes.

We knew we could not sit idle any longer and allow the current system to continue.

A fair and efficient criminal justice system is one of the cornerstones of our democracy, and with these steps we’ll be creating a better system for our state. But this alone is not enough.

We must work in earnest on our re-entry policies. It is a moral and civic imperative that we provide a real impact on both ends of the spectrum: from pretrial justice, to the rehabilitation and reintegration of those who are released from custody. Let us all commit to that hard task of finishing the job and ensuring justice for all.