Report cites problems with bail system in N.J.

TRENTON – A report released Monday said that many of the 15,000 individuals in county jails in New Jersey are incarcerated solely because they cannot afford their often nominal bail amount.

The report by Luminosity, which worked with Drug Policy Alliance, titled “New Jersey Jail Population Analysis: Identifying Opportunities to Safely and Responsibly Reduce the Jail Population,” examined county corrections data from 19 of the 21 state counties. The examination found the following:

*On any given day, nearly 75 percent of the 15,000 individuals in New Jersey jails are awaiting trial rather than serving a sentence;

*The average length of incarceration for pretrial inmates is more than 10 months.

*Nearly 40 percent of the total jail population has the option to post bail but lacks the financial resources to do so and more than 1,500 individuals could secure their release pending trial with $2,500 or less;

*More than half of Superior Court criminal cases pre-indictment are in backlog status;

“The decision to release or detain a person pending trial must be based on the risk the defendant poses to the community and of failing to appear in court,” said the report’s author, Marie VanNostrand.  “A pretrial system that provides limited or no alternatives to monetary bail often results in the detention of low-risk individuals who lack resources and the release of high-risk individuals who have resources. Shifting from a resource-based system to a risk-based system will undoubtedly improve public safety and ensure the most efficient and effective use of public funds.”

Advocates argue that the driving force behind these inefficiencies is the state’s exclusive reliance on money bail. At the moment, the state publishes a schedule for judges to follow when setting bail, detailing frequently charged offenses as well as an advisory on monetary ranges. This schedule encourages the court to indiscriminately impose money bail on all defendants rather than make individualized determinations of whether monetary release is necessary and appropriate, the report states.

More than half the people in New Jersey jails are there for nonviolent charges and many of them could be safely released with supervision pending trial.

“This report provides the first-ever comprehensive picture of the population in New Jersey’s jails and what it shows is that the current bail system is broken,” says Roseanne Scotti, New Jersey State Director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which commissioned the report. “It can cost New Jersey $30,000 to warehouse a nonviolent individual pending trial — simply because that individual doesn’t have the resources to pay bail amounts as low as a few hundred dollars. The current system punishes individuals and families with few resources and wastes taxpayer money.”

Other states have successfully mitigated jail overcrowding through the implementation of comprehensive and pragmatic bail and pretrial reform policies, according to the report.

Kentucky, for example, has outlawed private bail agencies in favor of a state-run pretrial services agency that conducts risk assessments to evaluate the possibility of an arrestee’s non-appearance at trial and threat to public safety. Defendants who are approved for non-monetary release are supervised and provided with necessary and individually-tailored social services until their next court date. Since implementation, the state has documented substantial cost savings, reduced recidivism numbers and achieved stable court appearance rates, according to the report.

Supporters of bail reform, which Gov. Christie called for in a recent town hall, said they will work with lawmakers on bills to improve the state’s broken bail system.

They intend to propose four major changes:

  • Encourage a system of non-monetary release options.
  • Require arrestees to undergo a risk assessment before their initial bail hearing in order for the court to make individualized determinations of what, or if, monetary bail is appropriate.
  • Establish a comprehensive pretrial services agency within each county that will monitor and counsel those awaiting trial.
  • Eliminate private financial incentives to set high bail amounts by prohibiting the operation of commercial bail bonding companies in the state. 
Report cites problems with bail system in N.J.