Is bail reform working in NJ? Report coming this fall
New Jersey’s criminal-justice reform efforts are groundbreaking enough to have attracted inquiries from judicial officials in California, Florida, New York and North Carolina. But they’re also on track to run out of money within two years.
There are costs associated with the criminal justice reforms, including more than 270 people employed by the program that operates seven days a week to assess the risks of everyone who’s arrested to recommend whether to release them or jail them until trial.
In all, it costs close to $35 million a year – but Judge Glenn Grant, the acting administrative director for the state’s courts, said only $22 million in court filing fees are dedicated to the program.
“Even with large carry-over balances and reserves and strict controls over spending, our projections show the pretrial services program will run out of money by the fourth quarter of (fiscal) 2020,” Grant told the Senate budget committee Tuesday.
Adding to the challenge: Grant says filing fees have again declined this year.
Sen. Declan O’Scanlon, R-Monmouth, said he’d support Grant’s suggestion of putting all the revenues from the court fees into the general fund, then fully funding the criminal-justice reform offices from the general fund.
O’Scanlon said there are challenges in defending bail reform because it’s difficult to quantify how much violence is avoided by keeping dangerous people in jail until their trial. But it’s easy to know if someone who is released reoffends.
“The people that are against this try to say every single one of those incidents wouldn’t happen if we were not to have bail reform. But the truth is that probably 70, 80, 90 percent of these people would have been out anyway under the old system,” he said.
Grant said the judiciary will issue a report about defendants’ recidivism rates this fall and plans to compare it to offense rates among people released under the old cash-bail system.
"What we're trying to do is to pull all of the comparative information, compare what was under the old system, what was under the new system and say here's the recidivism rate for people that might have been released four years ago, five years ago versus someone who's only been released 30 days, 40 days," Grant said. "We need a little bit more time to really have what we call a true picture of the dynamic. But you will get a full picture of that dynamic."
In the first 15 months since criminal justice reforms have been in effect, 18 percent of defendants have been detained until trial without a chance for posting bail. Only 44 posted cash bail in 2017, with the others released at various levels of monitoring.
Grant said the judiciary and its consultant are analyzing the assessments to decide whether to add domestic violence and juvenile history to what is considered when assessing a defendant’s risk.
“What you try to do is recognize the need for public safety. And having 8,000 people detained without the ability of getting out of jail is a huge statement about the law enforcement side,” Grant said.
Grant said county jails in New Jersey have experienced a 20 percent reduction in their populations in the first year under bail reform but that it’s too soon for that to have led to savings.
“One year of a reduction of 20 percent is not significant enough time period, if you will, for the county to say based upon this one-year reduction, I’m going to close a pod or I’m going to reduce staffing,” Grant said.
“What you really need is a few more years to say, ‘My prison population was, let’s just say, at 800 people. It’s now operating at 600 people. And it’s been operating at that level for two, three years,’” Grant said. “Then the county, then the warden really should be engaged in a conversation about this reduction,”
The pretrial population is down by 35 percent since the start of 2015.