New Jersey Abandons Money Bail
January 5, 2017 (Fault Lines) — New Jersey has a bit of a reputation problem. This should surprise no one, given that best known residents of the Garden State are Tony Soprano, Chris Christie, and the cast of Jersey Shore. However, New Jerseyans can be proud of a series of criminal justice reforms that took effect upon the New Year, the most important one being the near-elimination of having to come up with a sum of money as a requirement for bond.
Voters approved an amendment that eliminated New Jersey’s constitutional right to bail, which had meant defendants were released from jail on bail unless they couldn’t come up with the money. Now, courts will rate defendants to determine security risks and in most cases rely on pretrial release.
Under the previous system, offenders were entitled to bail by the constitution and could go free if they had the money, while others would remain behind bars before trial if they couldn’t come up with the cash.
There are two basic reasons for a bond. The first is to ensure that the defendant shows up for court when he’s supposed to. The second is to ensure the safety of the community at large while trial is pending. Defendants can be “released on recognizance” (ROR, a/k/a “personal bond” or “signature bond”); basically a simple promise to appear. For more serious crimes, the defendant is required to lodge some money with the court (say, $10,000 for a felony) which he’ll get back at the end of the case, minus court costs.
If the defendant disappears, the money is forfeited. For defendants who can’t afford a bond themselves, they can usually pay a bail bondsman (usually 10% of the amount) to post the bond for them. Then if the defendant disappears, the bondsman is on the hook to the court for the full amount.
The whole point of this system is to ensure that if the defendant disappears, someone other than the government has an incentive to find the defendant and bring him back. Money has nothing to do with keeping the community safe, however; that purpose is accomplished by imposing other, non-monetary conditions of release, such as regular drug and alcohol testing or no-contact orders with victims.
What New Jersey has done, essentially, is to decide to trust the vast majority of its criminal defendants to show up when they’re supposed to. For example:
One defendant, Sai Ravipati, 22, of New York, appeared in court today on the charge of aggravated assault using a pipe in Jersey City on New Year’s Day. The third degree crime calls for a sentence of three to five years in prison if convicted and under the old guidelines, a bail of $20,000 to $50,000 with a 10 percent cash option was recommended.
But Pretrial Services had assessed Ravipati to be a low risk of failing to appear at court hearings and of committing another crime. He also has no priors. Based on the Pretrial Services recommendation, he was released on his own recognizance, ordered to appear at all hearings in his case and to immediately give notice if his contact information changes.
Basically, the defendant saved between $2000 and $5000 and Jersey City saved the cost of incarcerating him until his case is resolved. This is an especially good thing for poor people charged with less serious offenses:
The Drug Policy Alliance reports that 12 percent of New Jersey’s inmate population were in custody because they couldn’t post bail of $2,500 or less. (note: ypically, this would mean that these defendants can’t come up with $250 or less to pay a bondsman).
Of course, bail bondsmen, horribly worried about the threat to the good citizens of New Jersey loss of their source of income, are upset about this:
Bail bondsman Kirk Shaw says that bail offices are also set to lose jobs. Before the new law was in place, friends and family would post bail money and pick up their defendants from jail.
“The people have no skin in the game, they’re going to be released unaccountable at the taxpayer’s expense,” Shaw says. “Taxpayers need to know your municipalities will be paying for this, your county’s going to be paying for this and your state’s going to be paying for this.”
The taxpayer’s “expense,” such as it is, is the chance that someone out on bond will commit another crime. Of course, a defendant could commit another crime even if he had paid Shaw…but, no doubt, Shaw is part of the community too, and having the defendant’s money probably made him feel a little safer.
Nevada is attempting a similar experiment with a pilot program, and apparently it hasn’t gone too badly:
He said Justice of the Peace Stephen Bishop in Ely told him the system has sped up the entire process, allowing defendants to work with their lawyers and resolve cases more rapidly. He said he has had no defendants fail to appear for court thus far.
Hardesty said Clark County also reports no cases where a defendant released without requiring bail has failed to show up at this point.
“In Las Vegas it was zip; in Ely it was zip,” he said.
Very slowly, the public is starting to realize that the measure of success of the criminal justice system isn’t how badly it can screw defendants, especially the poor and minority ones. Apparently it really is possible to both save money and get better outcomes for defendants and society. What a deal!