ACLU-NJ Hails Passage of NJ Bail Reform as Historic Day for Civil Rights

Affiliate: ACLU of New Jersey
August 4, 2014 12:00 am

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ACLU of New Jersey
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Two legislative measures will shift bail from money-based to risk-based and, for the first time, guarantee speedy trials in NJ

August 4, 2014

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Today, the New Jersey State Assembly passed a legislative package to reform New Jersey’s broken bail system. On any given day in New Jersey, more than 10,000 people sit in jail not because they are dangerous, but because they cannot afford bail. In fact, the majority of people held in jail are not charged with violent crimes, sex crimes or weapons offenses. Thousands of people are held because they cannot come up with $5,000. At the same time, more dangerous persons with large financial resources can more easily make bail and be free pending trial. Further, while less than one-third of New Jerseyans are Black or Hispanic, seventy-one percent of those in jail are. Add in the fact that the average time an indicted person spends in jail without a trial is 314 days, and it becomes clear that our broken system wreaks havoc on the lives of thousands of poor people and, disproportionately, on the lives of people of color.

The two measures passed today seek to fix the current broken system.

S946/A1910 shifts New Jersey’s bail system from a money-based system to a risk-based system. It aims to ensure that each person who gets arrested would be evaluated to determine the likelihood of committing another offense, intimidating witnesses, or fleeing. Low-risk, non-violent offenders would be released on their own recognizance, while many of those who pose higher risks would be released subject to conditions such as curfews, travel restrictions, or electronic monitoring. A small subset of defendants – those who pose the greatest risk to public safety – could be detained without bail. The bill also ensures for the first time in New Jersey’s history that any defendant who is detained would be entitled to a statutory speedy trial protection that ensures that defendants no longer languish in jails for years on end.

The other measure, SCR128, would place a constitutional amendment on the ballot for this November’s general election to permit judges to deny pretrial release to certain defendants if the court determines on an individual basis that no amount of bail or other conditions such as no-contact orders, reporting requirements or electronic monitoring could reasonably assure that defendant’s presence in court, protect community safety, or prevent obstruction of the criminal justice process. This denial of bail would only be permitted for certain high-level or high-risk offenses. SCR128 passed the Assembly with 53 votes for, 7 against, and 9 abstentions.

Having passed the Senate last week, S946/A1910 now goes to Governor Christie, a vocal proponent, for his signature. The constitutional amendment goes directly on to this November’s ballot.

The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey issues the following statement in response to the Assembly’s vote today:

“Today’s vote by the Assembly marks an historic moment for civil rights in New Jersey, one made possible through years of careful deliberation and hard work from advocates, lawmakers and stakeholders alike. The reforms passed by the legislature today will curb a long-standing injustice faced by poor people and, disproportionately, by people of color who are often held in jail for months, and even years, not because they are dangerous or likely to flee, but because they can’t afford bail.

This package will finally enable New Jersey to shift our bail system away from a money-based system to a risk-based one, and it will establish the statutory right to a speedy trial for defendants. Together, the end of money bail and the beginning of an actual right to a speedy trial amount to a tremendous victory for civil rights, racial justice, and the safety of New Jersey’s communities.

The ACLU-NJ congratulates the Drug Policy Alliance and other criminal justice reform champions throughout the state who have worked tirelessly to overhaul our broken bail system. We also thank the legislative sponsors in the Senate and the Assembly for their leadership, and Governor Christie for his support for these important changes. The ACLU-NJ will remain vigilant to ensure that the implementation of these changes truly strengthens civil rights and civil liberties.”

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