Criminal Justice Reform, also known as bail reform, was implemented throughout the State of New Jersey on January 1, 2017. In 2014, voters passed an election ballot referendum to amend the New Jersey Constitution and change the bail system. Simply put, judges now must consider a defendant’s flight risk and threat to the public when deciding whether to detain or release an individual while awaiting trial. These changes all but eliminate cash bail and, the majority of defendants are released pending trial.

The aim of criminal justice reform was to ensure that individuals did not continue to spend an excessive amount of time in jail simply because they could not afford to post bail. The cash bail system disproportionately affected communities of color and the poor and had repercussions that extended far beyond the criminal justice system. Individuals who could not afford bail and remained in custody pending trial lost employment, custody of their children, pled guilty simply to get out of jail, and faced a variety of other consequences while high risk people who could afford bail were able to bail out.

While the intent of criminal justice reform is noble, the Newark Police Division believes they have seen an increase in crime, which they attribute to the quick release process because of the new bail law.

As a result of some of the criticisms they have faced, and in order to better educate the public on what bail reform means particularly for Essex County, on November 30, 2017, the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office held a public forum on the bail reform issue. Speaking at the forum were Robert Laurino, Acting Essex County Prosecutor; Roseanne Scotti, Director of the Drug Policy Alliance in New Jersey; Amy DePaul, Trial Court Administrator for the Essex County Vicinage; and Anthony Higgins, Supervisor Assistant Prosecutor in charge of Central Judicial Processing Court and Special Remand Court.

Roseanne Scotti provided some background information on pretrial detention process in New Jersey that led to the bail reform. . Over 75% of individuals in county jail were awaiting trial, not serving a sentence. These individuals spent on average, 10 months in custody awaiting the disposition of their case. The majority of these individuals were African American or Latino and 40% of the individuals remained in custody solely because they could not afford a bail amount of $2,500 or less.

Anthony Higgins was the second speaker and described the new arrest and screening process for defendants. Essex County is the only county in the state to implement prosecutor screening during the arrest process. This means that assistant prosecutors approve the charges when an individual is arrested. Also during the arrest process, a risk assessment is completed, which considers factors such as: age, if the nature of the current offense is violent, pending charges at the time of the arrest, prior disorderly persons convictions, prior indictable convictions, prior violent convictions, prior failure to appear at court, and prior sentence to incarceration. From this data, the assessment provides scores on the defendants’ risk of: failure to appear at court, new criminal activity, and new violent criminal activity.

If an individual scores high enough on the assessment, they are held on a warrant and sent to county jail where they are required to see a judge within 48 hours. Pre-trial detention is generally reserved for the most violent offenders, or those who recidivate frequently.

Amy DePaul provided some information on the positives and negatives of the risk assessment process. While the assessment only considers objective factors and does not take into account any personal factors, it also does not consider juvenile history, domestic violence history, or active restraining orders. Judges receive this information if an individual is held on a warrant and can consider it when they are deciding to hold a person pending trial. If an individual is released, he can also be subject to conditions, which can include in person or phone check-ins, requirements not to contact the victim from the case, requirements not to reoffend, or electronic monitoring. Approximately 19% of defendants in Essex County have been detained pending trial. DePaul also noted that the jail population has decreased 40% in the past two years due to criminal justice reforms.

Acting Essex County Prosecutor Robert Laurino provided a brief overview of the trial process. While in prior years, some cases would take years to get to trial, prosecutors now have 180 days to bring a case to trial. While generally positive about the changes brought on by criminal justice reform, Prosecutor Laurino acknowledge that it is a work in progress.

The forum was then opened to questions:

Q: Are individuals who are released connected to social services?

A: Individuals cannot be court ordered to use services since they have not been convicted. The Public              Defender’s office could refer them to services.

Q: Are cases from prior years moving through the system at an expedited pace due to changes from                    criminal justice reform?

A: Older cases do not have to move at the same pace as newer cases but the Prosecutor’s Office is    trying to get through those cases as fast as possible.

Q: Are there cost savings associated with the lower jail population?

A: As a result of criminal justice reform, sections of the jail have been closed due to the decreased   population. At this time, not sure about cost savings or where that money might go.

This criminal justice reform forum provided important information on the changes to the arrest and court process in Essex County. The Safer Newark Council is looking forward to partnering with the criminal justice agencies in Essex County and the Mayor’s Office to host other forums throughout Newark to provide residents with this important information.