N.J. will eliminate cash bail, speed up criminal trials in 2017

On June 2, 2015, police equipped with a search warrant knocked on the door of Jeannette Santiago's Camden home.

Santiago said the target of the warrant was a friend who had been selling drugs out of her house, but that officials went after her too because the deed to the house was in her name.

She was charged with eight drug- and gun-related felonies.

In no time, Santiago was shipped to the county jail, where she would spend the next 17 months, unable to afford the bail for her release.

First bail was set at $700,000, cash or bond. Two weeks later, it dropped to $500,000. Ultimately it was reduced to $175,000, with the option of paying 10 percent.

"I just cried. I was like, 'I'm not going anywhere,'" said Santiago. "There's no way my family could do anything about that."

In late October, she finally made bail. A bond agency took $8,000, and Santiago said she is still paying off the balance.

But even sitting on her couch in her new apartment in Voorhees, ready to start a new chapter in her life, the mother of two lamented the time she spent cooped up in jail in downtown Camden.

"I missed 17 months of my children's lives. You know, birthdays and holidays and everything. You miss a lot. You come home, and everything is different," she said. "Everything is different."

Changes coming to New Jersey courts next year aim to speed up trials and get rid of monetary bail, with the hope of eliminating any more cases like Santiago's.

How it will work

New Jersey had a jail problem in 2013. Too many people were incarcerated because they could not afford to pay the bail required for their release.

An analysis by the nonprofit Drug Policy Alliance and the consulting firm Luminosity found that 38.5 percent of all inmates in New Jersey jails were there only because they couldn't pay their own bail.

That year, voters approved a New Jersey constitutional amendment allowing courts to detain defendants in criminal cases without bail; previously, defendants had to be granted bail by law (excluding those accused of capital crimes).

Several state laws followed, setting timelines for a speedy trial and eliminating money bail in all but a few cases.

Instead of setting bail, judges will now determine whether a defendant should be released before trial based on whether they are likely to commit another crime or skip their court date.

And they will make that determination, in part, using a computer program.

Here's how the new system will work:

Anyone arrested for a crime is entitled to a pretrial detention hearing within 48 hours of their arrest.

Court officials will enter specific information about a defendant — age, prior convictions, and previous instances when the defendant missed a court date — into the computer, which will spit out a number.

At the detention hearing, the judge will use that number as well as any additional arguments made by the prosecutor or defense attorney to determine whether to hold or release the defendant.

Judges will have three options: Release the defendant on their own recognizance; release the defendant with some non-monetary conditions, such as a curfew or GPS monitoring; or detain the defendant until trial.

Advocates say the new method will eliminate two problematic scenarios that occur when money bail is used: nonviolent, poor people stuck in jail because they cannot afford bail and dangerous people of some means who can pay their way out.

On June 2, 2015, police equipped with a search warrant knocked on the door of Jeannette Santiago's Camden home.

Santiago said the target of the warrant was a friend who had been selling drugs out of her house, but that officials went after her too because the deed to the house was in her name.

She was charged with eight drug- and gun-related felonies.

In no time, Santiago was shipped to the county jail, where she would spend the next 17 months, unable to afford the bail for her release.

First bail was set at $700,000, cash or bond. Two weeks later, it dropped to $500,000. Ultimately it was reduced to $175,000, with the option of paying 10 percent.

"I just cried. I was like, 'I'm not going anywhere,'" said Santiago. "There's no way my family could do anything about that."

In late October, she finally made bail. A bond agency took $8,000, and Santiago said she is still paying off the balance.

But even sitting on her couch in her new apartment in Voorhees, ready to start a new chapter in her life, the mother of two lamented the time she spent cooped up in jail in downtown Camden.

"I missed 17 months of my children's lives. You know, birthdays and holidays and everything. You miss a lot. You come home, and everything is different," she said. "Everything is different."

Changes coming to New Jersey courts next year aim to speed up trials and get rid of monetary bail, with the hope of eliminating any more cases like Santiago's.

How it will work

New Jersey had a jail problem in 2013. Too many people were incarcerated because they could not afford to pay the bail required for their release.

An analysis by the nonprofit Drug Policy Alliance and the consulting firm Luminosity found that 38.5 percent of all inmates in New Jersey jails were there only because they couldn't pay their own bail.

That year, voters approved a New Jersey constitutional amendment allowing courts to detain defendants in criminal cases without bail; previously, defendants had to be granted bail by law (excluding those accused of capital crimes).

Several state laws followed, setting timelines for a speedy trial and eliminating money bail in all but a few cases.

Instead of setting bail, judges will now determine whether a defendant should be released before trial based on whether they are likely to commit another crime or skip their court date.

And they will make that determination, in part, using a computer program.

Here's how the new system will work:

Anyone arrested for a crime is entitled to a pretrial detention hearing within 48 hours of their arrest.

Court officials will enter specific information about a defendant — age, prior convictions, and previous instances when the defendant missed a court date — into the computer, which will spit out a number.

At the detention hearing, the judge will use that number as well as any additional arguments made by the prosecutor or defense attorney to determine whether to hold or release the defendant.

Judges will have three options: Release the defendant on their own recognizance; release the defendant with some non-monetary conditions, such as a curfew or GPS monitoring; or detain the defendant until trial.

Advocates say the new method will eliminate two problematic scenarios that occur when money bail is used: nonviolent, poor people stuck in jail because they cannot afford bail and dangerous people of some means who can pay their way out.

"It does cost money to provide justice," said Shalom. "They can stop aggressively prosecuting these things. But until they do, criminal defendants are entitled to constitutional protections."

A complaint filed by the association is still pending before the state Council on Local Mandates, a body independent of all three branches of state government that can invalidate any law it deems poses an "unfunded mandate" on counties or towns.

The council is aiming to schedule a hearing on the matter late next week, just days before the reforms are set to take place.

Until then, people will continue to have the experience Samuel Jones had late last year.

The New Brunswick resident was arrested on several drug charges in late 2015 and faced a $35,000 bail.

Even once it was reduced to $15,000 with the option to post just 10 percent, Jones, who spent more than two months in jail, could not afford to pay.

"That's a lot of money. That's something I don't have," Jones remembers thinking at the time. "I'm going to be in here for a while."

Original Article

TROY SINGLETON
ASSEMBLYMAN, 7TH DISTRICT
400 NORTH CHURCH STREET, SUITE 260
MOORESTOWN, NJ 08057
 
Tel: 856-234-2790
Fax: 856-234-2957
Email: AsmSingleton@njleg.org