Winning Bail Reform in New Jersey

One of Drug Policy Alliance New Jersey's greatest victories to date is passing comprehensive bail reform legislation. On August 11, 2014, Governor Chris Christie signed comprehensive bail reform legislation (Senate Bill 946 / Assembly Bill 1910). On November 4, 2014, New Jersey voters passed Ballot Question #1 enacting this historic reform which will take effect in January 2017. This important legislation will create a fairer, safer and more cost effective bail system by allowing the supervised pretrial release of low-risk individuals who do not threaten the security of their communities. Bail reform prioritizes public safety and encourages fiscal responsibility while strengthening families and communities. The passage of this legislation was the culmination of two years of extraordinary advocacy by the Drug Policy Alliance's office in New Jersey, our New Solutions Campaign coalition and our allies.

The Drug Policy Alliance originally drafted and suggested model bail reform legislation in response to a 2013 study we commissioned that found county jails in New Jersey are overflowing with low-risk individuals awaiting trial, many of whom are incarcerated simply because they cannot afford often nominal amounts of money bail. These people remain in jail for an average of ten months before they have their day in court at high costs to taxpayers.

The comprehensive bail reform bill we advocated for overcame major obstacles to pass the legislature and get to the desk of Gov. Chris Christie. Three months after he signed it into law, voters passed the constitutional amendment necessary to allow its implementation. It is one of the most significant bail reform victories in the country to date serving as a model for other states considering pretrial justice reform. As long as the New Jersey law is implemented correctly, it will mean that thousands of people will no longer have to languish behind bars simply because they cannot afford the cost of bail.

Bail reform efforts in New Jersey received high-level support in the state, including that of the Governor, Attorney General, Senate President, and Chief Justice of the State Supreme Court. Both the Supreme Court Joint Committee on Criminal Justice and the State Commission of Investigations issued reports citing the Drug Policy Alliance’s 2013 study and calling for comprehensive bail reform. Even with this level of support, the Drug Policy Alliance and its New Solutions Campaign coalition had to fight hard to fend off strong attacks from the well-financed bail bonds industry.

Once the legislature passed the bill and the resolution, the Drug Policy Alliance and our allies immediately began working to make sure the ballot initiative would pass. On November 4th, Question #1, the constitutional amendment needed to implement comprehensive bail reform, passed with 62 percent of the vote, greenlighting a redesign of the state’s bail system.

The New Jersey Administrative Office of the Courts is responsible for implementing bail reform and a Pretrial Services Program Review Commission was established through the bail reform law to oversee and assist with effective implementation. The Drug Policy Alliance and some of our New Solutions Campaign partners were named to the Commission and are responsible to report annually to the Governor, the Legislature and the Supreme Court.

The New Solutions Campaign continues to work to transform New Jersey’s pretrial justice process into a system that meets general requirements of fundamental fairness, relies on evidence-based practices designed to promote rehabilitation and reduces recidivism and is fiscally responsible. We expect the bail bonds industry to do everything in their power to chip away at this important victory.