N.J. legislative package stalls over definition of 'speedy trial'

Posted: July 26, 2014

TRENTON - With less than two weeks to vote on a measure that could lead to pretrial detention without bail, New Jersey lawmakers remain divided over how to address the right to a speedy trial.

The schism could upend the criminal-justice reform package that has been in the works for two years.

The proposed constitutional amendment, which requires voter approval, would allow judges to deny bail if, following a prosecutor's motion, they are concerned that defendants would not show up to court, would threaten the safety of others, or would obstruct or attempt to obstruct justice.

Accompanying legislation, still being debated, would allow other defendants who do not present such threats to be released before trial without bail. Judges would consult a risk-based assessment program to make these determinations. The amendment, which would take effect in 2017, would not be retroactive.

Left unsettled is how to account for the right to a speedy trial, which is enshrined in the U.S. and New Jersey constitutions, though neither document spells out specific time frames.

One group of legislators, including Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) and Sen. Donald Norcross (D., Camden), wants to include a provision in legislation that, in the case of an individual's being detained without bail, would require indictments to be handed down within 90 days. Trial would have to begin in the 180 days following indictment. Failure to meet those guidelines could result in the release of the defendant.

Another faction, led by State Sens. Ron Rice and Nia Gill, both Democrats of Essex County, say that language should be included in a constitutional amendment. They also would extend the protections to all inmates, regardless of whether they had been detained or released.

With the support of various civil rights groups, Rice and Gill argue that future legislatures could easily change the statute.

"If the speedy trial rights are in the bill, then there is no certainty, and the speedy trial dates can be 'ignored' for good cause and subjected to all kinds of changes and modifications," Rice said in prepared remarks Thursday to the Senate Law and Public Safety Committee.

In an interview with the Inquirer Editorial Board on Wednesday, Sweeney said no state but Colorado had such protections in its constitution.

"The courts have argued strenuously against it," Sweeney said. "They said it would be an enormous mistake."

Sweeney set a target day of Thursday to vote on the amendment. For voters to consider the proposal this year, the constitution requires that an amendment be voted on three months before the November election, in this case by Aug. 4.

"The reality is, you have an Assembly election next year," Sweeney said. "I don't think the Assembly would want an issue like this on the ballot. That leaves you until '16. We want to get moving on this as quickly as we can."

Yet Sweeney faces opposition within his own caucus - and from civil rights groups such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, founded by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

In a letter Wednesday to Rice, the conference's general counsel wrote that "it is clear that the language of these amendments has reverted to a form that is unacceptable to SCLC due to the widespread disparate impact this language will have on minorities and poor people."

The attorney, Charles Brooks, also questioned whether the Legislature had adhered to proper procedure in advancing the amendment to this point. Brooks pointed to news reports that raised questions about that issue.

Sweeney, in the interview, charged that the conference was being "funded by the bail bondsmen."

"They're brought up here. Somebody should look at the money the bail-bonds people are spending," he said.

Asked for details, he said: "It's their consortium. I know they're doing it."

A spokesman for the SCLC said officials likely would not be available for comment Thursday. Ronald Olszowy Sr., president of the New Jersey Bail Association, referred comment to the American Bail Coalition, which did not return phone calls.

Despite disagreement over speedy trial, there appeared to be broad consensus Thursday that changes are needed in the criminal justice system.

On average, about 9,000 defendants are detained before trial each day in New Jersey, according a March report of state Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner's Joint Committee on Criminal Justice.

The report served as a model for the bill being considered by the Legislature.

Defendants typically stay in jail for 60 to 90 days, at a daily cost of $100 per inmate, the report said. Many cannot afford to post bail, and advocates say the system disproportionately affects low-income individuals and minorities.

Mustafa Willis, 28, of East Orange, told the Senate panel Thursday that he was arrested once in 2010 and again in 2012. He said he sat in jail for four months following the first charge because he could not post $3,000 bail.

Bail was set at $6,500 the second time, Willis said, and he still owes money to the bondsman.

"Neither of these arrests resulted in any criminal conviction, yet I suffer and continue to endure the consequences of an unjust system," he said.

Capt. Greg Carlin of the Camden County Police Department shared an anecdote about 28-year-old James Dickerson, who in April had been released on bail after his ninth and 10th arrests.

He said police approached a "suspicious group" of men on April 25 and, without warning, "James broke away from the group and began firing his handgun at officers."

No one was hurt, and police caught Dickerson. He is back in jail with bail set at $500,000. Carlin said the episode underscored the need to detain certain individuals without bail.

Of the proposed amendment, he said, "This change would have a positive impact on law enforcement and public safety statewide."

aseidman@phillynews.com856-779-3846 @AndrewSeidman

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