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The rising crime rates of the ’70s and ’80s ushered in the Tough on Crime era of policymaking. Some of those policies worked, and with help from many other social forces, crime rates dropped across the country. Now most of us feel safe walking anywhere in New York City. And now that the country is no longer preoccupied with public safety, the overreaching and cruel policies of the Tough on Crime era appear much clearer.
So there’s been a backlash recently, or at least a roll back. The Department of Justice reduced the crack-versus-powder-cocaine sentencing disparity. The Supreme Court declared overcrowded prisons unconstitutional. States like New York have vowed to lock-up less inmates in solitary confinement. Prosecutors like Brooklyn D.A. Ken Thompson are reviewing possible wrongful convictions. The President himself has criticized the unfairness rooted in his country’s criminal justice system.
We’ve entered an era of criminal justice reform. The push for change has been particularly strong on the topic of pretrial detention, and New Jersey is the latest state to jump on board. This week a judiciary panel headed by the state’s chief justice announced a proposal that would revamp New Jersey’s bail system.
New Jersey’s constitution requires that judges set a bail for all defendants (other than those accused of capital crimes). The Supreme Court Joint Committee on Criminal Justice recommended that the state legislature approve an amendment that gives judges discretion on whether or not to set a bail. Voters would have the final say on whether the amendment passes.
The problem with the current system is that it is based on money and the bail schedules that rigidly set the amount. The purpose of bail is to ensure that a person shows up to court, but many low-income defendants can’t afford the payment and the pretrial detention effectively punishes them for being poor.
Consequently, more than 60 percent of people in jail in America have not been convicted of any crime. They are simply awaiting trial, while their life on the outside disintegrates: jobs lost, rents unpaid. The New Jersey panel cited a study that found that 12 percent of inmates in the state’s jails had bail amounts set at $2,500 or less.
Under the proposal, a defendant’s chance at freedom would be based not on his bank account but on the danger he posed to the public and the risk that he would flee. A pretrial evaluation would cover factors such as his criminal record, employment status, support system, drug use, and any past missed court appearances.
The court would monitor those released without bail. This risk evaluation system is popular in many counties in northern California.
Gov. Chris Christie released a statement supporting the changes. He had called for bail reform in his most recent State of the State speech.
There has been a strong push for reform in New York too. Last February Jonathan Lippman, chief judge of the state’s highest court, declared that the bail system “strips our justice system of its credibility.”