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New Jersey’s Bail Reform Nightmare: A Cautionary Tale

New Jersey Bail Reform

With so-called bail bonds reform a hot topic in Colorado these days it’s important that taxpayers, the ones who will actually pay the price for bail reform failure, keep in mind the sad case of New Jersey. Oftentimes wolves come dressed in sheep’s clothing and that was certainly the case in 2014. That year bail reform was put to New Jersey voters in the form of a ballot question that seemed like a straightforward proposal that would allow the state to hold certain dangerous offenders without bail. The heading of the ballot question read:

“Constitutional amendment to allow a court to order pretrial detention of a person in a criminal case.”

Most reasonable people would conclude that the proposed amendment to the New Jersey constitution was intended to make it easier for the court to detain someone prior to their court date. And if you read the entire question that seems like a valid conclusion:

“Do you approve amending the Constitution to allow a court to order pretrial detention of a person in a criminal case? This would change the current constitutional right to bail. The change to the Constitution would mean that a court could order that a person remain in jail prior to trial, even without a chance for the person to post bail, in some situations. The amendment also removes language in the Constitution about bail eligibility for death penalty cases. The death penalty no longer exists in New Jersey.”

But the most important aspect of the ballot question wasn’t actually in the ballot question. It was squirreled away in the fine print.

The Kicker

A lengthy explainer was attached to the ballot question that basically repeated the points of the question in huggy-fuzzy happy-speak. Buried in the blizzard of bail reform PR however, was this ominous but easily overlooked line:

“The amendment authorizes the Legislature to pass laws concerning pretrial release and pretrial detention.”

Turns out that the laws the legislature had in mind had little to do with holding accused murderers, rapists and child molesters without bail. Instead the laws they passed kicked the bondsman to the curb and replaced them with a computer program that would determine if those murderers, rapists and child molesters should be released while awaiting trial.

The Real World Results of Eliminating Bail Bonds

There have been more instances than we have room to list here where the new system has betrayed the public interest. But the situation in Ocean County, New Jersey is a good example. Just a few weeks ago a local judge there released a known child predator because a computer algorithm said the man didn’t pose a flight risk. Prosecutors strongly opposed releasing the man but the judge did it anyway, citing the computer program to bolster his opinion. Local residents were appalled. The police chief in the town even went on Facebook to warn residents to keep an eye on their children.

Just a week later in the same community a man who had been arrested for smashing a TV over his girlfriend’s head was also released. Again, because the computer concluded he was a nice guy. And then a couple of days later, again in Ocean County, a drug trafficker who had been caught red-handed with a large stash of heroin was released while awaiting trial because the computer told the judge to do so.

You Call That “Success”?

Proponents of New Jersey’s disastrous new system spend a lot of time these days attempting to justify the calamity they’ve wrought by pointing to statistics. The number of people in pretrial detention, they crow, has dropped by 20%. Of course what they don’t say is that many of those released without bail are the aforementioned child predators, drug traffickers and perpetrators of domestic violence. If having an ever growing number of violent and dangerous offenders walking the streets is “success” we’d hate to hear how these people define “failure”.

But the failure of bail reform in New Jersey is not just a public safety failure, it’s also a financial failure of epic proportions. Multiple studies have warned, and the legislature has acknowledged, that the new system is “not sustainable” from a financial standpoint. Unless taxes are raised to pay for the new system the New Jersey judiciary will go broke sometime in 2019. So, not only are residents forced to share the streets with an increasing number of dangerous offenders, they’re also going to have to pay higher taxes for the privilege of sharing the sidewalk with murderers, rapists, drug traffickers and child molesters.

Reform, Yes. Insanity, No.

You won’t find many in the bail bonding industry who would argue with the notion that some type of reform is necessary to ensure people who should be released are not held simply because they can’t afford bail. But eliminating bail altogether and instead releasing anyone a computer program (which doesn’t have children or pay taxes) says to release is insane and, in the words of the New Jersey legislature itself, simply “not sustainable”.

The Lesson for Colorado

Although efforts to change Colorado’s bail system fell short last year backers of the movement to eliminate cash bail haven’t rested in their efforts to saddle the citizens of Jefferson County, Arapahoe County, Denver County and beyond with their short-sided ideas. By staying vigilant however, and understanding the ways the bail elimination movement hides its true intents behind flowery rhetoric and deceptive ballot question, Coloradans can avoid a New Jersey style social catastrophe.

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