Tuesday, February 07, 2017
Bail it may just be for boats soon
At least in the state of New Jersey where new rules and guidelines are humanizing the system of pre-trial handling of people accused of crimes. Since they began January 1 of this year, the number of defendants assessed bail has dropped dramatically.
The hearing illustrated the sharply altered legal landscape after voters in 2014 supported amending New Jersey’s Constitution to nearly eliminate cash bail, a move that has placed the state in the forefront of a national movement aimed at changing a bail system that critics say discriminates against poor defendants, many of whom are blacks and Latinos. Defendants languishing in jail, unable to come up with modest bails for low-level offenses, often have their lives upended, losing jobs or having children taken away from them.The potential for good by enabling the poor to avoid financial disaster is yet to be realized but the first steps toward rationalizing a system that has leaned so heavily in favor of the moneyed criminal is a real positive sign.
New Jersey’s changes, which were backed by Gov. Chris Christie, closely mirror those adopted by the federal judicial system and the District of Columbia, which have long shunned monetary bail in criminal proceedings. While a handful of other states like Kentucky and Colorado have pursued bail changes, New Jersey stands apart as having the most far-reaching overhaul.
Bail is still an option, but the reality is that judges have nearly done away with it. In the 3,382 cases statewide that were processed in the first four weeks of January, judges set bail only three times. An additional 283 defendants were held without bail because they were accused of a serious crime or were a significant flight risk, or both.
“A year ago, a defendant who appeared in court would have been forced to post bail in a majority of cases,” said the state’s chief justice, Stuart Rabner. “And one in eight inmates were being held because they couldn’t post bail of up to $2,500.” That is the typical amount for a minor offense, and bail bond agents would usually seek 10 percent, or $250 in cash. Some defendants cannot afford even that.
The new approach, perhaps not surprisingly, has provoked protest from the bail bond industry, which says the system is allowing dangerous criminals out on the streets. “The system is just overloaded,” said Richard Blender, a lawyer in New Jersey who represents several bail bond agents. “They can’t process these defendants fast enough. They are just pushing people out the door. You’re talking about child pornography, carjacking and aggravated sexual assault.”
But experts argue that a system relying on bail does not guarantee public safety. “There is nothing that says you can’t be a serial killer and a millionaire,” said Joseph E. Krakora, the state’s public defender.
E. Rely Vilcica, an assistant professor of criminal justice at Temple University, pointed out that drug dealers often had the means to post high bails and continued plying their trade. “Basically people who have money can buy their freedom,” Professor Vilcica said. “So cash bail doesn’t address the danger.”
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