TRENTON — Gov. Chris Christie has ordered both chambers of the New Jersey Legislature to convene Thursday to consider reforming the state’s bail system in time to meet a constitutional deadline next week.
“Together, we can take action on this critical matter of public importance,” Christie said in the letter. “The security and stability of our communities demands that we take this action now.”
The Senate was already scheduled to meet Thursday to vote on the two-part bail reform package, but the Assembly had not scheduled a meeting prior to Christie’s announcement.
The bail reform package includes a constitutional amendment authorizing judges to withhold bail from defendants accused of violent crimes who are considered a high risk to commit more crimes if released from jail.
Companion legislation would also change New Jersey laws to allow some suspects who aren’t considered dangerous and can’t afford bail to be released on non-monetary conditions or restrictions, such as electronic monitoring, house arrest or mandatory reporting, pending trial.
The bill would also increase court fees to raise revenue to cover some of the additional expenses related to the monitoring as well as additional employees needed to speed court proceedings.
The constitutional amendment is subject to voter approval. The deadline for such a question to be placed on the November ballot is Aug. 4.
There is no referendum requirement for the remainder of the bail reform proposal, but Democratic lawmakers have indicated that they would support only the amendment if the other reform measures are passed, and some Democrats have insisted that they be part of the constitutional amendment as well.
For an amendment to be placed on the ballot, three-fifths of the Assembly and Senate must approve it.
Christie has the authority to require lawmakers to meet, but he cannot force them to post legislation for a vote.
Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-3rd of West Deptford, has said he is confident enough senators would support both measures, which he posted for votes. But Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto, D-32nd of Secaucus, did not indicate that the Assembly would act after the governor’s speech.
“The governor has the authority to call a special session, but that doesn’t change the fact that this legislation remains a work in progress, with significant questions and concerns and a lack of consensus among Assembly members,” Prieto said in a statement. “The legislation also wouldn’t take effect until 2017, so there continues to be time to work on this issue without impacting implementation. The Assembly, as has always been the case, will continue to make every effort to get these bills ready and will act when ready to do so.”
Whether enough lawmakers will be available to travel to Trenton on short notice to vote on the measures is also in doubt.
Assemblyman Troy Singleton, D-7th of Palmyra, said he planned to attend and was hopeful both measures would be posted and approved.
“The financial implications are still a concern, but I think we can move forward,” Singleton said Tuesday. “For those men and women who are incarcerated for no other reason because they are poor, this is an opportunity to move forward.”
“We may not have the votes, but I’m hopeful,” he said.
In addition to bail reform, the special session provides an opening for the Assembly to vote on a proposed constitutional amendment asking voters to approve dedicating a share of New Jersey’s corporate business tax revenues to open space and other land preservation programs.
The Senate already passed the proposed amendment.
As with bail reform, lawmakers face an Aug. 4 deadline to approve the amendment so the question can be put on the November ballot. However, the chances of its being posted for a vote appear slim.
“I haven’t heard if that might be considered,” Singleton said.
Some Assembly members have expressed concern that corporate business tax revenues have been shrinking and that dedicating any tax revenues is worrisome given the state’s tenuous financial condition.
Supporters worry that if new funding isn’t approved this year, the state’s pool of money for preservation will run dry.
“We are down to the wire, but there is still a small window of opportunity for the Assembly to save New Jersey’s preservation legacy,” said Tom Gilbert, chairman of NJ Keep It Green, a coalition of conservation and environmental groups.