When first implemented earlier this year, the New Jersey Bail Reform and Speedy Trial Act was designed to eliminate bail for minor crimes and reduce the state’s jail population.
But a few months after implementation of the law, law enforcement officials began to grumble. Potentially violent criminals were being released to the streets and repeating their crimes even before – as several Jersey City cops noted – the ink on the original criminal complaint was dry.
“We would lock them up and they would be out on the street the next morning,” one officer said.
In fact, defendants in some of those cases knew the law as well as the cops did.
“These are street-smart people,” said Mayor Steven Fulop. “They knew the law, and they would taunt the police, saying they would be out the next day.”
“And they were right,” said Public Safety Director James Shea.
Under the law, during pre-trial hearings judges were to determine whether a defendant posed a significant risk, and decide whether to release them without bail. It would be up to the prosecution to say why a defendant should not be released.
The law, however, had two significant exceptions – for murder, or for any other crime that would result in a life sentence.
In these two categories, the defense would have to persuade the judge a defendant did not pose a risk to the public.
Judges were to use assessment tools to determine bail, such as a person’s age at the time of the alleged offence, whether or not the offense was violent in nature, and if a defendant has failed to appear in court in the past, or any other possible pending charges.
Race, ethnicity, or where a person lives could not figure into his decision.
The bail reform also set limits on how long a defendant can be incarcerated prior to indictment, requiring an indictment within 90 days and a trial to begin within 180 days.
As a result, in Hudson County’s Central Judicial Processing Court where bail is set for defendants, most of those charged are released.
And in some cases, the results have been disastrous, especially with defendants caught carrying illegal firearms.
In Jersey City and other cities like Newark, Paterson, and Camden, illegal guns have led to shootings in the street, innocent people wounded, and a growing number of people dead.
Pushing for change
Gathered on the steps of Jersey City Hall, Mayor Fulop, State Senators Brian Stack and Sandra Cunningham, and Hudson County Prosecutor Esther Suarez joined other public safety officials to announce legislation that would close the loophole when it comes to illegal gun possession.
A modification introduced on April 19 in the state Senate establishes guidelines that would add possession of an illegal firearm to the reasons forcing defendants to prove they pose no risk if allowed out without bail.
The officials claimed that for the most part the law has successfully demonetized pre-trial detention and kept individuals arrested for minor offenses who do not have the financial means to post bail out of jail.
Inability to post bail has often resulted in long stays in jail while waiting trial, in many cases for what are considered minor offenses.
“We see that bail reform works and has been a real success for the majority of people it was intended to help, but we also see how it is negatively impacting cities where people arrested with illegal handguns are being released back into the community,” Fulop said. “We don’t believe this is what bail reform was intended to do, and hope that this legislation can close this loophole and help the police and prosecutors keep these violent offenders off the street.
“However, the majority of those individuals were not detained and were instead released back into the community,” Fulop said. “State statistics showed that 52 percent of those arrested for illegal gun possession were immediately released after their initial court hearing.”
Fulop went on to give specific examples.
Since the start of the year when the law went into affect, Jersey City police have made 84 arrests for unlawful possession of a handgun. This is up from 51 for the same period last year, Fulop said.
At this point in 2016, Jersey City had 74 handgun seizures throughout the city. In 2017 so far, the Jersey City police have seized 95, a 29 percent increase.
One arrest on Van Horn in mid-April involved four people and police recovered a .45 caliber loaded handgun. The four individuals were immediately released.
A 25 year old Jersey City man arrested in early January for burglary was released the next day. A couple of weeks later, he was arrested for possession of a firearm and a stolen vehicle in Elizabeth. He was released the next day. In early February, he was again arrested, with another handgun on Washburn and Palisades Avenue in Jersey City.
“This clearly is a problem that needs to be corrected,” Fulop said.
He said similar calls for reform have come from other New Jersey municipalities faced with violent offenders being released back into the community and repeating violent crimes or becoming the victims of violent crimes.
“If someone is walking around with an illegal gun, you can presume nothing good is going to come of it.” – Senator Brian Stack
Stack called this a “common sense” change.
“If someone is walking around with an illegal gun, you can presume nothing good is going to come of it,” he said. “Bail reform has been a great tool and something we view as beneficial for the state as a whole, but once implemented, we could see there were gaps, particularly for some of our larger cities.”
The change in law, Shea said, helps protect public safety personnel as well as the general public. In other states, such as New York, possession of an illegal firearm is considered a violent offense.
Suarez said some people under the current law would be released on a weapons charge because it may be a first weapons offense, ignoring the fact that this same person may have a long criminal history.
In some cases, those released are also in danger. Fulop said one person picked up on a weapons possession charge was released only to become a murder victim two weeks later.
More to be fixed down the road
Local police say in some cases violent criminals – such as those charged with home invasion – have been released as well, contrary to the original concept of releasing people with only minor offenses.
“It is clear this is not working,” said Suarez.
While the original law did help people get on with their lives, she said the law needs to be tweaked, and in addressing questions about other crimes such as rape, legislators will likely have to revisit the law again in the future for possible additional tweaks.
She said the law was passed and the impact was assessed, and the April 19 amendment is seen as a needed change. But there will likely be more reviews in the future.
“I have been a strong advocate for bail reform and it truly has been a success in making our state’s justice system more equitable in how it treats individuals charged with minor offenses,” said Cunningham. “We don’t want to change that because it is working. But what isn’t working is allowing violent offenders, those charged with illegal guns, to be sent back to their neighborhoods to continue to cause harm and to commit further crimes against our citizens.”
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.