Ever since the state of New Jersey approved comprehensive reforms to its money bail system in 2014, opponents have warned that the changes — which eliminate cash bail for people accused of low-level crimes — would lead to “dangerous and violent offenders [being] cut loose from jails and shoved into communities where innocent people suffer.”
Numerous law enforcement officials, prosecutors, lawmakers and local media outlets have been strong opponents of the elimination of cash bail, which is the payment required from a defendant in return for being released from jail as they await trial. The fiercest resistance to change has come from the powerful for-profit bail bond industry.
This $2 billion industry, which makes most of its earnings by exploiting low-income defendants stuck in desperate situations by shaking them down for steep and sometimes illegal fees in return for a loan that can be used to pay bail, has been using misinformation and fear tactics to combat cash bail reforms. One industry group even posted on Facebook that reforming the cash bail system means “every night is purge night,” an allusion to the popular horror films in which crime is legalized.
Get Talk Poverty In Your Inbox
However, the results are in from the long-awaited criminal justice report by New Jersey’s Administrative Office of the Courts, and it’s clear that the Garden State did not devolve into lawless chaos because of bail reform. Instead, crime rates in New Jersey have been plummeting ever since the reforms were implemented in 2017, with violent offences such as homicide and robbery down by more than 30 percent.
The report proves that concerns about large numbers of defendants committing crimes while released and failing to show up for trial were unwarranted. State court officials say that the differences before and after the state’s bail reform are statistically insignificant — there was a 3.3 percentage point increase in the number of defendants who failed to appear in court, and a 1 percentage point increase in the number of defendants who were charged with a new crime while released and awaiting trial. The report states that that “because of certain challenges in compiling data from 2014, small changes in outcome measures should be interpreted with caution and likely do not represent meaningful differences.”
The positive impacts are much more noteworthy. According to a statement by Superior Court Judge Glenn A. Grant, acting administrative director of the New Jersey courts, “New Jersey’s jail population looks very different today than it did when the idea of reforming the state’s criminal justice system first took hold.” The state’s overall pretrial population, which consists of detainees who have not been charged with a crime, has declined by 44 percent. That amounts to 6,000 fewer people incarcerated in 2018 compared to 2012.
This means that thousands of defendants who have not been convicted of a crime and are presumed innocent under the law will be free to remain with their families and their community while they await their day in court. Under the previous system, low-income defendants would see their lives fall apart as they lost their job, housing, or even their children simply because they could not afford to pay bail.
On the other side of the spectrum, violent yet wealthy defendants will no longer be able to use their resources to walk free when facing serious charges such as sexual assault or armed robbery, while low-income defendants facing minor charges such as possession of marijuana remain locked up. According to a statement by the Drug Policy Alliance’s New Jersey State Director Roseanne Scotti, all this proves “that New Jersey’s historic bail reform law has been a resounding success.”
It is important to note that these reforms are not a panacea. The report reveals that although the state’s jail population is dropping, “the overrepresentation of black males in the pretrial jail populations remains an area in need of further examination.” In a press release, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey mostly praised the reforms but added that “a system that reduces the number of incarcerated people but does not improve racial disparities is simply not good enough. We intend to continue our advocacy efforts to reduce racial disparities in the criminal justice system.”
Although more work needs to be done to address these racial disparities, New Jersey’s reforms have been successful enough to inspire other states, including California, New York, Texas, Illinois, and Alaska. The bail bond industry has also declared war on those efforts.
The report’s findings are “an absolute refutation of the bail industry’s scare tactics” said Alexander Shalom, senior supervising attorney at the New Jersey chapter of the ACLU, in an email. “They had warned that a virtual elimination of money bail would result in no one appearing in court and massive crime increases. That we’ve seen 6,000 fewer people jailed and virtually no increase in court nonappearance or re-arrest rates debunks that myth.”
In New Jersey, concerns about a crime explosion turned out to be nothing but fearmongering. It is now up to the rest of the nation to follow suit by looking at the facts, ignoring the bail industry’s scare tactics and taking steps to create a just, safe, and nondiscriminatory bail system.