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Self-Deception, Thy Name is “Bail Reform”

Bail Reform Reality Check Ahead

In 2017 New Jersey effectively did away with the cash bail bonds system. In its place they adopted a computer program that decided whether defendants should be held for trial or released without bail. In the two years since supporters of the change have scrambled to come up with any statistic they can find (or manufacture) to bolster the fantasy that this change has been good for the Garden State. Most of the arguments in favor of keeping the new system however, border on delusional. Recent media attempts to put a positive spin on an April report by the Administrative Office of the Courts in New Jersey are a prime example.

Throwing Reason out with the Bondsman

The much ballyhooed report from the NJAOC was trumpeted by several media outlets that have come out against cash bail as a vindication of the change. According to a local USA Today affiliate in Northern New Jersey, the report paints a rosy picture where the presumably innocent are freed, the presumably guilty are held, whites and blacks receive equal treatment and no one who is released without bail ever commits a crime. Ever.

The reality, however, is quite different.

First off, what media outlets sympathetic to bail “reform” fail to mention is that the report states quite emphatically that unless taxes are raised to cover the cost of the new program the judicial system in New Jersey will be bankrupt by 2020. That’s because when you release someone without bail you need to have some way of tracking them so that they don’t disappear.

But keeping an eye on defendants (which used to be done by bail bonding agents and not the state) requires an enormous new high tech infrastructure that itself requires armies of high priced employees (all paid by the state) to run. And there just isn’t money in the budget to do so.

As a result, rollout of the tracking system has been spotty at best, the state is losing track of thousands of people released without bail and the Judiciary will soon run out of money to track anyone. In addition, many defendants are simply not showing up for their court dates either (more on that below).

The “No Increase in Criminal Activity” Fantasy

News agencies trying to spin the NJAOC report also claim it indicates that people released without bail are not likely to commit crimes. Some of these same stories then seem to brag about the fact that in the first year of the program there was “only” a 3% increase in the number of people who failed to show up in court to face the charges against them. Excuse me, but failing to appear in court is a crime. And anyone who fails to appear is then considered a fugitive from justice.

So, let’s do a reality check here based on some ballpark figures. Each year about 350,000 people are arrested in New Jersey. Some 85-90% of these people are now being released without bail. Let’s take a conservative number and say 300,000 are being released without bail.

Prior to bail reform some 10% of these - about 30,000 - failed to show in court and became fugitives. Now an additional 3% are not showing up. That means an additional 9,000 people released without bail have committed the crime of failing to appear. That’s on top of the 40,000 others who are committing indictable offense after being released (an increase of nearly 10,000 from the days of bail).

So all told an additional 19,000 people minimum are committing serious crimes because of the new system. Also, the state now has no way to round up those fugitives who are failing to appear. In the past the bail bondsman took care of that. Now, nobody does. You can call that progress if you want, but it’s the kind of progress we can do without in Jefferson County, Arapahoe County and Denver County.

Media in Wonderland

The media journey down the rabbit hole doesn’t end with their half-truths and omissions regarding crime rates and the explosion in the number of fugitives the new system is creating. It extends right to the core of the arguments that were made in support of so-called “bail reform”.

One of those arguments was that doing away with cash bail would result in a smaller percentage of the total jail population being African American. The NJAOC, however, reveals that the percentage of blacks being held under the new system hasn’t changed at bit. Except that it’s actually increased in some counties.

Another argument for ditching the bondsman was that cash bail punished the poor. The narrative went that poor innocent people were being held in jail just because they couldn’t afford bail. The reality however, was that most of those being held over for trial were repeat offenders who were denied bail or people who had jumped bail in the past and so were denied bail. Perhaps not surprisingly the percentage of those people being held under the new system hasn’t changed either.

The Path Forward

So where do we go from here? Proponents of bail reform, eager to pad their resumes and willing to manipulate reality in order to support their short-sighted vision are everywhere today. The only weapon average taxpayers have to defend themselves is their vote. So the next time they want to dump the financial and societal disaster known as bail reform in your lap just vote “no”.

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