July 28, 2014 In The News

NORCROSS: Bail system should be overhauled

A man is charged with aggravated assault and other counts in connection with a barroom brawl, and he posts bail. Shortly thereafter, that same man brutally rapes an 8-year-old. Again, he posts bail. Finally, he is involved in the murder of three Newark teens and the assault of a fourth on a cold night in 2007 that could have been avoided if only the courts had the ability to detain these types of dangerous individuals before trial. Instead, despite being a known risk to public safety, this monster was repeatedly released on bail, free to commit more violent acts.

Sadly, events like these are far too common in New Jersey. Under our state’s dysfunctional bail system, only criminals facing the death penalty — which New Jersey repealed in 2007 — can be held for trial without bail while murderers, wife-beaters, rapists, home invaders and every other violent offender must be eligible for bail.

This perverse notion of justice is why I’ve worked for two years to reform New Jersey’s bail system and allow our courts to consider pretrial detention in high-risk cases. We can end it by adopting the same constitutional system that 26 states, the federal government and the District of Columbia have to protect families from violent criminals: pretrial detention for the worst offenders.

Victims of violence strongly support these reforms, and so do police, prosecutors, family advocates and civil rights organizations. It has broad bipartisan support in the Legislature, as well as the support of the governor. It meets all civil liberty tests of the U.S. Constitution. It is paired with a bill defining specifically what crimes would be subject to pretrial detention, an appeal system and speedy trial rights.

On the flip side of this system that values financial resources over risks, there are 1,800 nonviolent inmates who are sitting in jail on any given day, an average of 314 days each, because they are too poor to pay bail of $2,500 or less. It’s a pauper’s jail. They’re languishing in jail not because they are violent but because they’re poor. Those who have jobs lose them because they can’t show up for work. Instead of sitting in jail, costing taxpayers $30,000 a year per inmate, they should be working and paying taxes.

New Jersey’s Mad Hatter bail system overpenalizes minority nonviolent offenders, overburdening taxpayers with unnecessary jailing costs while enabling violent thugs and sexual predators — who should be kept in jail — to be free on the prowl.

Opponents raise some reasonable — but easily resolved — concerns, especially regarding the presumption of innocence until convicted. The reforms being proposed, however, clearly pass

the constitutional test and protect those rights. The reforms provide for a pretrial detention hearing in which a judge — not a police chief or prosecutor — will determine if the accused poses a threat to others after a certified risk assessment is performed.

Losing that argument, allies of the bail bond lobby are raising the dubious Trojan Horse argument that these reforms will disproportionately penalize members of minority communities accused of violent crimes. To the contrary, our minority communities are disproportionately victimized by violence and, like everyone else, they demand every tool we can craft to be free of violence and fear.

I understand that certain groups have a financial stake in maintaining the status quo. The cash bail system can be lucrative if you’re on the right end of it. But too many of our residents have found themselves on the wrong end for too long.

The choice is clear. Stand with women, children, seniors, family advocates, anti-crime groups, religious organizations, police, prosecutors, and victims of domestic abuse and reform our bail system, or cynically stand with the violent thugs who are terrorizing our families and communities.

State Sen. Donald Norcross, D-Camden, is chairman of the Senate Law and Safety Committee.