New Jersey Voters Get to Decide on Bail Change

Even the most outspoken critics of a New Jersey ballot measure to eliminate the right to bail for those accused of crimes say they support the intent: Keeping the most dangerous suspects behind bars while letting others go free as they await trial under conditions that do not include posting cash.

The major qualms about the Nov. 4 ballot measure are about the details — and some opponents are resigned to seeing the measure adopted.

"I'm against it the way it is," said state Sen. Ronald Rice Sr., who argued against the specifics of the overhaul in the Legislature earlier this year, "but I'm not sure how much can be done about it."

The ballot question is one of two constitutional amendments New Jersey voters are being asked to consider in the election; the other would set up a system to pay for open space and farmland preservation.

The bail measure is a companion to a law adopted earlier this year by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Chris Christie, who publicly pressured lawmakers to move quickly on the issues. Both would go into effect in 2017. Many parts of the law going into effect are contingent on the amendment being adopted.

The amendment would end the right to bail, which is now guaranteed under the state constitution to everyone charged with a crime.

Advocates for the change say that many people who are threats to society go free on bail while other low-level suspects who are not dangerous languish in jail at a major cost to taxpayers and themselves.

Roseanne Scotti, the New Jersey director of the Drug Policy Alliance, a major player in the push for bail change, said half of the 14,000 people in New Jersey's county jails are there only because they cannot afford bail.

She said that for practical purposes, suspects can now be held indefinitely when prosecutors ask for and judges set high bails.

"This is an honest way of doing it and your rights are more protected," she said. "If the prosecutor wants someone to be detained pending trial, he has to prove to the judge that you are a danger to the community."

Scotti said similar changes have worked well in Washington D.C., the federal court system and Kentucky.

Mustafa Willis, a 29-year-old Newark man, spent three months in jail in 2010 and a few weeks there in 2012, both times on weapons charges that were later dropped. He could not afford the bail — $3,000 the first time and $6,500 the second.

He said he got bedbugs in jail and lost his job unloading trucks for a liquor distribution company. Willis said he has not been able to land a steady job since. He testified before lawmakers earlier this year to call for reforms and he's still campaigning for changes.

"It might help somebody else in the future for something they didn't do," he said last week, "so they can get back out to their family, children and friends."

Groups including the American Bail Coalition, New Jersey Association of Chiefs of Police and the New Jersey Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers oppose the amendment but none has mounted a vigorous campaign against it so far.

Richard Blender, a lawyer who represents the United Surety Association of New Jersey and several bail bonds companies, said his group believes that some defendants should be detained without bail and some low-risk, low-level suspects should be free without bail.

But he said it doesn't make sense to transfer the monitoring responsibility for large numbers of suspects to the courts rather than the businesses that do it now.

He said the move could be expensive because those released without bail must still be monitored somehow by the courts, rather than the bondsmen who would otherwise do so.

"To ask the courts to monitor these people, I think that's a waste of money," he said. "It's our obligation to find them if they don't show up."

State Sen. Ronald Rice, a Newark Democrat, said he believes that court fees being increased as part of the bail overhaul law will not be enough to cover the additional costs. But he also has an objection that is a matter of principle not addressed in the constitutional amendment: "If you're going to take away our constitutional right to bail," he said, "it should have a guaranteed right to a speedy trial."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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