Advocates for the poor, crime victims, police and others told New Jersey lawmakers on Thursday that they should move ahead with a constitutional amendment that would eliminate the right to bail for people accused of crimes -- but only if they also pass a law making other changes to the state's bail system.
The issue has long simmered in New Jersey, but legislators are now making a push to get the amendment on the ballot in November's election.
To do that, both chambers of the Legislature must approve it by Aug. 4. It faces opposition from the bail bond industry as well as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a civil rights group that has problems with some of the details of the proposals.
But at the hearing on Thursday, all the speakers supported the concept of a bail system overhaul as a way to make communities safer, the justice system fairer and drive down taxpayer expenses.
"New Jersey's bail system is broken,'' said Richard Todd Edwards, the political action chairman of the NAACP's New Jersey conference. "Three-quarters of the people being warehoused in our jails are there awaiting trial, not being punished.''
And 40 percent of the inmates, he said, are there simply because they cannot afford bail of even a few thousand dollars.
Sen. Donald Norcross, a Democrat from Camden who is sponsoring the measure, said those people could be in drug rehabilitation programs, job training or working instead of being locked up if pre-trial releases are determined by assessments of who is a danger to the community instead of who can afford bail. "We are empowering them to become tax contributors, not tax burdens,'' he said.
And by eliminating an automatic right to bail, advocates said, the most dangerous suspects could be kept off the streets.
Camden County Police Capt. Gregory Carlin said there have been several cases where people free on bail have killed others. And even if they don't go that far, he said, they can intimidate witnesses into not helping investigators.
"They just won't talk to us knowing someone is going to be back on the street,'' he said.
State Sen. Ronald Rice said he wants to see one major change to the proposed constitutional amendment before it's put before voters.
He said the amendment should be clear that suspects in New Jersey should have the right to a speedy trial -- within six months of being arrested in many cases -- or there's a risk that suspects could be held indefinitely without being tried. Supporters of the amendment as it now is say that could be worked out in a law rather that the amendment.
Rice also said there need to be additional judges, prosecutors and investigators to make faster trials possible.