Approval of Question Ushers in Comprehensive Bail Reform To Increase Public Safety and Improve Justice for All
Advocates Hail Historic Reform and Look Forward to Work on Implementing New Law
Trenton—New Jersey voters have approved Public Question No. 1 to reform New Jersey’s bail system. The narrowly-worded question allows judges to deny bail to dangerous individuals, but it ushers in broader bail reform because it is linked to comprehensive legislation, already signed by the governor, that overhauls the state’s broken bail system.
The legislation implements wide-ranging reforms including non-monetary release options for low-risk individuals; a system under which pretrial release decisions are based on risk rather than resources; the use of risk assessments for suspects enabling courts to make individualized determinations of what conditions of release are appropriate; establishment of a pretrial services unit within the court system that will provide appropriate levels of monitoring and counseling for those awaiting trial.
The legislation also protects the rights of those denied bail by requiring prosecutors to prove the case for pretrial detention by clear and convincing evidence and mandating clear timelines for speedy trial.
Advocates and faith leaders across the state waged a hard-fought two-year campaign to pass the legislation and win approval of Public Question No. 1 by voters. They hailed the victory as a historic change to New Jersey’s criminal justice system. “This is a historic reform,” says Roseanne Scotti, New Jersey State Director for Drug Policy Alliance. “Now pretrial release decisions will be made based on risk rather than resources and thousands of low-income individuals will avoid unnecessary jail time.”
A report released early last year by the Drug Policy Alliance found that on any given day, nearly 75 percent of the 15,000 individuals in New Jersey jails are awaiting trial rather than serving a sentence. The average length of pretrial incarceration for these individuals is more than ten months. Nearly 40 percent of the total jail population has the option to post bail but lacks the financial resources to do so and more than 10 percent of individuals could secure their release pending trial with $2,500 or less. More than half of the individuals in New Jersey jails are there on nonviolent charges.
Advocates are now looking to the future and implementation of the law. The legislation creates a Pretrial Services Program Review Commission, including such advocacy groups as the Drug Policy Alliance, the New Jersey State Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Latino Action Network, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, and the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice.
NAACP-NJ President Richard Smith, whose organization supported the legislation and ballot question, says “Today the citizens of New Jersey made their voices heard as they made the dream of bail reform a reality. We must now, again, be diligent in our work as we look to the future and the full implementation of the law.”
Rev. Craig Hirshberg, executive director of the Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministry of New Jersey, who testified during the statehouse hearings on bail reform, says, “The passage of Question No. 1 will bring about a new era of justice for those incarcerated simply because they can't afford bail. This a proud day for New Jersey.”
Rev. Dr. M. William Howard, Jr., pastor of Newark’s Bethany Baptist Church, who rallied clergy statewide around the important issue of bail reform, says, “The adoption of bail reform in New Jersey adds a little more justice to the criminal justice system.”