Bail Reform Urged to Keep Violent Suspects Locked Up

Article provided by New Jersey Criminal Defense Lawyer - Anthony N. Palumbo

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has proposed a constitutional amendment to reform the state's bail laws and allow judges to deny bail for defendants who would present a danger to the community if released before trial. The amendment would modify Article I of the state constitution, which currently guarantees a right to bail for all criminal defendants, except those charged with capital offenses "when the proof is evident or presumption great." Under the proposed change, judges would be able to deny bail to defendants who pose a flight risk or who've been accused of violent crimes-particularly those with a prior record of criminal violence.

In support of his bail reform proposal, Governor Christie has cited statistics from a 2007 study that found that a third of all defendants released before trial were charged with one or more additional types of pre-trial offenses. Additionally, one fourth failed to appear in court, one sixth were arrested for an additional offense, and one twelfth were arrested for felonies prior to their trials. Based on these figures, Christie contends that "allowing judges to consider certain factors, such as the dangerousness of the offender to the community before being released back into society, is just a simple common sense reform that is long overdue in this state."

Prosecutors and law enforcement officers have applauded the Governor's bail reform amendment. As Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa explained, the changes are necessary because the "current bail system allows dangerous offenders back on the streets to threaten witnesses and intimidate whole neighborhoods while their cases are pending."

It's also an open secret that judges already consider public safety and prior criminal records when making decisions on bail, imposing higher bail requirements and more severe pretrial restrictions on defendants who present a flight risk or pose a danger to the community. Accordingly, the bail reform amendment would to some extent simply reflect the reality of the criminal justice system.

Despite support from the law enforcement community, the bail reform amendment has also raised some concerns. One problem is that county jails, which are already holding thousands of defendants who can't afford to pay bail, could face over crowding and deteriorating conditions If the measure results in too many defendants being detained pending trial. Defense attorneys have also contended that the change would increase the costs for the state and impose additional pressures on the court system, which already struggles to process cases in an efficient and timely manner. The costs of funding a more restrictive bail system, it's been argued, could be better spent by funding police departments and investing in more effective public safety measures.

Christie's bail reform proposal would also diminish the value of defendants' right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty, subjecting them instead to long periods of incarceration, making it more difficult to consult with their attorneys and formulate effective legal defenses, and damaging their personal and professional reputations. According to Barbara Moses, a law professor at Seton Hall University in Essex County, "in states that permit pretrial detention without bail-or that allow judges to set bail so high that impoverished defendants cannot possibly post it-defendants are often presented with plea bargains which require them to plead guilty to charges that they believe are unwarranted in return for relatively short sentences, perhaps equivalent to the time they have already served while awaiting trial. Many defendants take those plea bargains in order to get out of jail, notwithstanding the sometimes draconian long-term consequences of having that criminal conviction on their record."

Because the bail reform amendment could result in defendants being incarcerated for months, or even years, before going to trial and possibly being acquitted, defense lawyers and other advocates have called for measures to reduce delays to accompany any change. The same study that Governor Christie cited in support of his bail reform proposal, it has been noted, also found that a fifth of detained defendants were eventually acquitted or had their cases dismissed. And as ACLU New Jersey policy counsel Alexander Shalom explained, the state must "ensure that those who are presumed innocent have a real opportunity to have their day in court." He also suggested that the state should consider pre-trial incarceration alternatives such as house arrest and the use of ankle monitors.

For Governor Christie's bail reforms to become law, the state legislature must first vote to put the constitutional amendment on the ballot. If the amendment is approved by the voters, the legislature would then have to enact a more detailed statute outlining the procedures and requirements for remanding defendants to pre-trial detention.

For more information about how Governor Christie's bail reforms could affect you or a loved one who has been charged with a criminal offense, or to discuss the state's current bail laws, contact an experienced New Jersey Criminal Defense Lawyer. A knowledgeable attorney will be able to help you understand the process of setting bail and the best strategies for obtaining a lenient bail determination.