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The bail bonds industry in the U.S. has been getting a lot of attention lately, due in no small part to a segment on comedian John Oliver’s HBO program Last Week Tonight and outrage over the death of Kalief Browder, a Riker’s Island inmate held in solitary confinement for years while awaiting trial for a non-violent crime. Activists on the both sides of the aisle are calling for comprehensive reform of the bail process.
When it comes to bail reform, New Jersey is way ahead of the curve.
Passed in November of last year, New Jersey’s bail bonds reform measure are among the most sweeping in the nation.
The legislation was championed by controversial Governor Chris Christie, who
called the pre-reform system a “debtors prison” that disproportionately punished the poor, even those accused of non-violent crimes.
“We are failing when we have a system that works against the very people in our society who need us to fight for the fairness they often cannot fight for themselves,” said Christie to a special session of the state legislature a few months before the reform was passed.
Christie’s assertions were supported by a 2013 report by the Drug Policy Alliance, which found that close to 75% of New Jersey’s population in jail was behind bars awaiting trial rather than serving a sentence. The average time spent in jail for pretrial holding was found to be more than 10 months.
The battle for change came to fruition when the New Jersey State Assembly passed the reforms advocated by Christie, the NAACP, ACLU, and others passed after two years of campaigning.
What Does New Jersey’s Bail Reform Mean?
The first reform measure, approved by public ballot, seems counter-intuitive given the calls context of the campaign discussed above. Basically, whereas before New Jersey citizens had a constitutional right to bail in every case, the court can now order mandatory pretrial incarceration in cases where the accused are found to be extremely violent or particularly dangerous. This measure won’t take effect until 2017.
This amendment, though, was linked to legislation signed by Governor Christie. The new laws included possibilities for non-monetary release for low-risk individuals, individualized risk assessments for suspects, and pretrial counseling services within the court system.
Basically, if the court finds a defendant is no threat to the community or the court system, they can be released without having to pay bail, meaning freedom for thousands of poor, non-violent offenders.
In the case of those who are denied bail per the ballot measure, prosecutors must prove that pretrial detention is necessary in clear, concrete terms, and lay out a firm timeline for a speedy trial.