In 2014 New Jersey voters were fooled into approving an amendment to the state constitution. A ballot question was presented that seemed to imply that state wanted to make it easier to detain potentially dangerous criminals who were awaiting trial. Of course concerned citizens approved this seemingly common sense initiative. When the changes went into effect in 2017 however, it became apparent that writers of the ballot question had pulled a fast one. Not only were fewer potentially dangerous criminals going to be being held over for trial, but many who had been in jail awaiting their day in court would be released. At the heart of the bait and switch was a new computer program intended to replace the bail bondsman, written by an organization no one ever heard of.
Almost immediately after the new bail-free release system went into effect people across the state began to complain that the government was putting them in danger by releasing accused murderers, rapists, child molesters, gangsters and more onto the streets with little regard for public safety. Proponents pointed to lower numbers of pre-trial detentions. Opponents pointed to the increasing number of dangerous criminals on the street and the exploding number of fugitives who no longer had any financial incentive to appear in court to face the charges against them.
Four months after the constitutional change and the laws that followed it went into effect a man named Jules Black was arrested by New Jersey State Police on a number of gun violations, including carrying a 9mm pistol. Black was a convicted felon and, under New Jersey law, prohibited from owning or carrying a handgun.
After being taken into custody the details of Black’s case were entered into a computer program which came back with a recommendation to release him. So the judge in the case ordered his immediate release. 3 days later Black approached a young man named Christian Rodgers on the street and shot him 22 times. Rodgers, needless to say, died instantly.
Black was re-arrested and is currently being held awaiting trial. But the damage was done. In the wake of this travesty the victim’s mother June Rodgers filed a lawsuit against (now former) Gov. Chris Christie who signed the new bail free system into law, New Jersey Attorney General Chris Porrino and the shadowy John Arnold Foundation which had developed the computer algorithm that failed so spectacularly.
In the lawsuit she alleges the Criminal Justice Reform Act (CJRA) of 2014 (the main piece of legislation enacted in the wake of voters ratifying the constitutional change) was and is a:
“system with dangerous risks that would impact — and did impact — the lives of 8.9 million people who live in the state of New Jersey”.
And that for Christie to sign it into law was an unconscionable act. Her complaint goes on to state that:
“Christie claims the CJRA is designed to keep people out of jail because they are poor and cannot afford bail, but in reality, Christie’s goal was to save money on the costs of incarceration in the state”
Since taking effect at the beginning of 2017 tens of thousands of accused criminals like Jules Black have been released by the state of New Jersey without having to post bail. A growing number of them have also learned another benefit of the no bail system: no financial loss if they don’t show up to court.
With the bail bonds system that was previously in effect in New Jersey a defendant ran the risk of losing any bail money posted - and their loved ones ran the risk of losing any property they put up as collateral - if the accused failed to appear on the appointed day to face the charges against them. With the new system that penalty no longer exists. As such, accused criminals are skipping out on their court dates in record numbers. The result is an exploding fugitive population and an increasing number of cases like the Christian Rodgers case.
Although the human and financial cost of no-bail systems continues to mount lawmakers across the country, in a seemingly vain attempt to attach their names to a hot issue, continue to push for more widespread adoption of the now discredited Arnold Foundation computer algorithm. The Colorado Senate wisely killed legislation last year that would have adopted the failed system here. When they did so they allowed the citizens of Jefferson County, Arapahoe County Denver County and elsewhere to avoid the chaos that has overwhelmed New Jersey communities and put countless lives at risk.
But there is no guarantee that this frenzy to rid the justice system of the bondsman is dying out. Indeed more initiatives have been brought before the Colorado legislature during the current legislative session that seek to eliminate the cash bail system that has worked for nearly a thousand years. Don’t let them do it.
The bail bonding system has survived for nearly a millennium because it works. It’s the best system ever devised for ensuring the presumption of innocence, while at the same time providing a powerful financial incentive for defendants to appear to face the charges against them. Is it perfect? Of course not. But, to paraphrase Winston Churchill’s observation about democracy: It’s the worst system ever devised, except for every other system.