Committee takes testimony on bail reform

TRENTON – The Senate Law and Public Safety Committee took testimony Thursday on the subject of reforming the state’s bail system to let judges have more discretion in letting low-income, low-risk offenders be released from jail but enable them to keep well-heeled offenders of first-degree crimes to remain behind bars longer. 

The bill, S2885, states that in order to determine whether a court could deny pretrial release, it must consider the nature and circumstances of the offense charged, the weight of the evidence against the defendant, and certain criteria regarding the history and characteristics of the defendant.

The bill would allow a court to release a defendant who fulfills pretrial conditions as an alternative to bail.  According to the legislation, the court may order one or more conditions requiring that a defendant, including remaining in the custody of a designated person; maintaining employment or seeking employment; avoiding contact with the victim, and abiding by travel restrictions.

Sen. Donald Norcross, (D-5), Camden, prime sponsor of the bill, said such reform is needed because there are “far too many examples” where high-risk offenders target victims once they make bail.

On the flip side, the county jails tend to be teeming with low-risk offenders because they can’t afford bail. 

“It’s time to give judges the ability to weigh public risk,” Norcross said, adding that it would bring the system close to the federal bail system. “This is a starting point for us. Just because you’re poor, you spend a few nights in jail … your life is never the same.” 

Sen. Christopher “Kip” Bateman, (R-16), Neshanic Station, said about the legislation, “This is important. This is ripe for reform.”

Dan Phillips of the Administrative Office of Courts supports the bill.  “It’s about justice,” he said. “It’s about equity.” 

He said right now, it seems like much of the decision on who’s released is made by bail agents.  “It’s not a good system, and takes little consideration of public safety.” 

A large majority of county jails are overcrowded because the offenders are not able to pay bail, even though they don’t pose a serious public safety risk. 

“It gives the judge a much more complete picture,” Norcross said. “It’s a tool that strengthens their hand.”

Roseanne Scotti of the Drug Policy Alliance also supports the bill. 

“This is seen as a moral issue, a civil rights issue,” she said. “We are basically having a penalty for poor people in this state…and often poor people of color.”
Scotti said the offenders who are unable to post bail remain in jail for 10 months on average before they appear in court.  

“The taxpayers are paying for them to be there,” she said, saying it could cost anywhere from $30,000 to $40,000 a year.

She said it makes no sense “warehousing” people who are no risk to the community and the state would be better off embracing pretrial alternatives like Kentucky has, such as community supervision, court-ordered drug treatment, curfews, and living situations. 

Norcross said he will hold another hearing over the summer to accept more testimony before holding a vote to release the bill. 

Gov. Chris Christie has also called for revamping the state’s bail system to bring it in line with the federal court system that tends to give judges more discretion.

Committee takes testimony on bail reform