Public Safety & Justice

Christie Urges Lawmakers to Change Bail System

by | July 31, 2014
 

By Andrew Seidman

Gov. Christie on Wednesday urged lawmakers to vote for changes he says are needed to reverse the "utter failure" of New Jersey's bail system, declaring that "we are nearly out of time to act."

"How can we continue to allow a system to exist that fails our poor, that fails those who pose no risk to the community, and fails our citizens because we're allowing dangerous people to walk free just because they can afford to?" Christie said. "It's not a fair system."

Christie delivered his remarks at a briefing at the Statehouse, where he stood beside Camden Mayor Dana L. Redd and other officials and social activists who support legislation pending before the Legislature. He did not take questions.

The support of these individuals -- most of them black -- seemed in part intended as a counter to opposition among some lawmakers and one civil rights organization that the proposed changes were discriminatory.

The briefing came a day after Christie called the Legislature to hold a special session Thursday, when he plans to address lawmakers. Christie has asked legislative leaders to hold a vote on two measures that would eliminate the right to bail for certain defendants and allow for the release of others before trial.

Lawmakers say they are close to a deal, though Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D., Hudson) signaled his chamber might not be ready to act just yet. But pressure is ramping up to do so, from newspaper editorial boards across the state to prominent clergy and former Gov. Jim McGreevey, who works with former inmates.

"The ACLU has actually supported something I'm doing," Christie said, referring to the American Civil Liberties Union. "This should be noted -- briefly -- but noted."

Christie decried the current system, which he said allowed those charged with nonviolent crimes to "sit in jail for an average of 10 months while violent people who can afford the bail walk free."

The Legislature is considering two proposals.

One is a constitutional amendment, which would need voter approval. It would allow judges to deny bail to defendants whom they determine may not show up in court, would threaten the safety of others, or would obstruct or attempt to obstruct justice.

The Legislature must pass the amendment with a three-fifths vote in each house by Monday to put the question on November's ballot.

Companion legislation would allow for the release of defendants before trial, if judges determine they don't pose those risks. It would also specify how long defendants may be detained before trial, in an effort to expand on the Constitution's right to a speedy trial.

"I think everyone understands the need to change the bail system, but I also expect a constructive dialogue," Prieto said in a statement Wednesday. "As I've made clear, I want to get this done, but each and every member of the Assembly -- duly elected representatives of the people of New Jersey -- deserves to get their questions answered and concerns heard on this important issue."

The amendment would take effect in 2017.

The legislation intends to move New Jersey away from a monetary-based justice system toward a risk-based one. Supporters say many defendants are unnecessarily housed in jail before trial simply because they cannot post bail.

That costs taxpayers, and also leads to worse outcomes for defendants, said a report of state Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner's Joint Committee on Criminal Justice.

It also creates "thousands of broken families," Christie said Wednesday. Low-income individuals charged with nonviolent crimes are "ripped from their families" and "lose their jobs, lose their homes, while they sit in jail awaiting trial."

Christie also ticked off a number of recent cases in which individuals charged with serious crimes were released on bail, with terrible consequences.

He cited one incident this month in Trenton in which a defendant released on bail broke into a family's home, pointed a gun at an 8-month-old child, and threatened to stick him in the oven if the family did not comply with his demands.

"Those are the consequences of not fixing this system," Christie said. "That person belonged behind bars."

Despite the support of Christie and Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester), the two measures are not done deals.

A vocal faction of lawmakers wants the speedy trial provision included in the constitutional amendment to ensure compliance of future legislatures.

Some legislators are also concerned the state hasn't properly accounted for the costs of creating a statewide risk assessment program, which would be used to determine whether defendants should be detained or released before trial.

But the greatest hurdle might just be summer vacation. "I think that's our biggest challenge: making sure the requisite number of members are in attendance" to pass the measures, said Assemblyman Troy Singleton (D., Burlington), who supports the proposals, in an interview Tuesday.

(c)2014 The Philadelphia Inquirer

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