How Bail Reform Upended New Jersey's Legal System
Jamie Contrano squirmed at the defendant’s table inside the Passaic County Court House here. She had been charged with possessing four envelopes of heroin, and, having failed to show up for more than a dozen court appearances over the years, she was a perfect candidate for a high bail — and a lengthy jail stay.
But under an overhaul of New Jersey’s bail system, which went into effect Jan. 1, judges are now considering defendants’ flight risk and threat to public safety in deciding whether to detain them while they await trial. Otherwise, they are to be released, usually with certain conditions.
Judge Ernest M. Caposela, who oversees Passaic County, noted that Ms. Contrano, 39, had a job at a carwash and was seeing a doctor specializing in addiction. He decided to let her out. “Will she fall off the wagon?” Judge Caposela said in an interview after the hearing. “She might. But sitting in jail is only going to hurt her. She has a disease, so is that a person I want to keep in jail for five to six weeks?”
The hearing illustrated the sharply altered legal landscape after voters in 2014 supported amending New Jersey’s Constitution to nearly eliminate cash bail, a move that has placed the state in the forefront of a national movement aimed at changing a bail system that critics say discriminates against poor defendants, many of whom are blacks and Latinos. Defendants languishing in jail, unable to come up with modest bails for low-level offenses, often have their lives upended, losing jobs or having children taken away from them.
New Jersey’s changes, which were backed by Gov. Chris Christie, closely mirror those adopted by the federal judicial system and the District of Columbia, which have long shunned monetary bail in criminal proceedings. While a handful of other states like Kentucky and Colorado have pursued bail changes, New Jersey stands apart as having the most far-reaching overhaul.