Panel urges changes to N.J. criminal justice system

Posted: March 22, 2014

TRENTON New Jersey's criminal justice system needs fixing - including how bail is administered, how pretrial defendants are detained, and how long it takes cases to go to trial.

Those were among the findings in a 120-page report made public Thursday by the Joint Committee on Criminal Justice, chaired by state Supreme Court Justice Stuart Rabner. The committee offered 27 recommendations to improve the system.

"If the proposals that have been presented are enacted, we believe that they will make New Jersey's system of criminal justice better, fairer, and safer," Rabner said during a noon conference call with reporters. "The primary recommendations do require legislation and a constitutional amendment."

Which is why members of the Legislature and Gov. Christie's office were part of the 26-member panel established in June, as were judges, prosecutors, public defenders, private counsel, and court administrators.

Though nearly all the recommendations have the unanimous support of judges and lawyers statewide, Rabner said, one industry likely won't be supportive.

"The bail-bond industry won't be happy," he predicted.

The committee recommended a shift from the current "resource-based" system of pretrial release of defendants to an objective, "risk-based" system and called for appropriate supervision to ensure defendants do not violate conditions of their release.

Too often, "pretrial release is largely dependent upon a defendant's financial resources," said the report, and those more likely affected are poor and minority defendants.

"Defendants who are unable to post bail are incarcerated before trial, which can have significant consequences," the report said. "some people are held on less serious crimes, with little risk of flight, only because they cannot pay relatively minor amounts of bail; others who pose a significant threat to the community and a substantial risk of flight must be released if they can afford to post bail."

The committee also recommended pretrial detention of any defendant for whom neither the community's safety nor a defendant's court appearance can be assured - no matter the monetary bail. That change would require a constitutional amendment and enabling statute

Rabner said new bail guidelines and better case management could reduce by half the current pretrial jail population of 9,000 defendants.

The committee called for changes to allow cases to be tried more quickly. One recommendation was that defendants cannot be held in custody for more than six months after indictment without a trial or the state would be forced to release them. Those not in custody must go to trial within a year of the indictment or the case would be dismissed.

The committee also recommended the Legislature adopt a "speedy trial act," setting forth specific time frames in which defendants must be indicted and brought to trial.

"Under New Jersey law, there are no specific time frames to determine when [the right to a speedy trial] has been violated," the report said.

Rabner said on average, it took well over a year for a case to go to trial in the state.

The proposed recommendations required having sufficient numbers of judges, prosecutors, and public defenders to handle cases and trials more swiftly and the collaboration of all three branches of government, he said.

Christie gave the committee his full backing on Thursday and urged the Legislature to move swiftly to adopt the recommendations.

"Reforming our bail system has been a top priority of mine, and I am glad the chief justice and his committee have put together a thoughtful, comprehensive proposal on how to accomplish it," the governor said in a statement. "In particular, I was pleased the committee supported my proposal to increase public safety by allowing judges to consider the dangerousness of a defendant when deciding whether to grant bail or order detention until trial.

"This will strengthen our justice system, protect witnesses from intimidation, and prevent proven criminals from engaging in more criminality while they await justice," Christie said.

"Today's report reaffirms that New Jersey's bail system needs to be fixed," said State Sen. Donald Norcross (D., Camden), who also is a candidate for New Jersey's First Congressional District seat. "Our outdated system focuses too much on an arrestee's wallet and not enough on their crime."

Alexander Shalom, senior staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union's New Jersey chapter, called the report groundbreaking.

"It reflects a unanimous view by people and organizations with seemingly divergent interests," he said. "These seemingly strange bedfellows all recognize that a system where hundreds of people are jailed because they don't have a few hundred dollars to post bail unfairly jails the poorest among us, not the most dangerous among us."

Rabner said he hoped one group in particular would be receptive to the committee's ideas.

"We are very mindful of victims," he said. "We had prosecutors at the table representing them.

"I would imagine they were quite pleased that we were taking steps to hear cases more speedily."


sparmley@phillynews.com

856-779-3928 @SuzParmley

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