N.J. Assembly passes bail overhaul

Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto said the bail measure isn't a perfect piece of legislation, but lawmakers would have time to make changes if voters approve it. Christie hailed the vote as "bipartisan progress." AP
Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto said the bail measure isn't a perfect piece of legislation, but lawmakers would have time to make changes if voters approve it. Christie hailed the vote as "bipartisan progress." AP
Posted: August 06, 2014

TRENTON - The New Jersey Assembly on Monday passed an overhaul of the state's bail system, clearing the way for voters to decide on a constitutional change while also giving Gov. Christie a bipartisan win.

The bail changes, along with a plan to supply long-term funding to the state's depleted open space preservation program, won approval on the last day to put a question on the November ballot.

The Senate passed the changes Thursday, after the Republican governor delivered a speech to the Democratic-controlled Legislature urging action on a constitutional change on the right to bail.

But the Assembly held off on voting amid dissent from some members on the proposal, which will ask voters to change the state constitution to allow judges to deny bail to high-risk defendants. Currently, all New Jersey defendants have a right to bail.

The measures approved Monday would set specific time frames for how long defendants who are ordered detained could be held before trial. The bail changes also would let judges release low-risk defendants before trial.

The constitutional question, which voters must approve, passed 60-0 Monday, with eight members abstaining and 12 not voting. Eleven members of the Assembly - which Democrats control, 48-32 - were absent.

Speaker Vincent Prieto (D., Hudson) said Monday that Assembly lawmakers had to look at the bail reform package, "vet it, and hear the concerns of the people."

"It's a good piece of legislation, and it does a lot of the good things I think all of us want," Prieto told reporters after the vote. "Is it a perfect piece of legislation? Probably not."

The changes will be implemented over two years to address issues, including cost, Prieto said.

"We have a cushion here to be able to get it right," he said.

Advocates of the bail changes say they address two problems with the current system: that dangerous defendants released on bail are able to commit new crimes, and that poor defendants charged with minor offenses are stuck in jail pending trial because they cannot afford nominal amounts of bail.

A committee led by state Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner this year endorsed a move to a bail system based on risk, tying bail to the danger presented by freeing a defendant and the risk of the defendant's failing to appear in court.

The bill accompanying the constitutional question passed Monday would require that a risk assessment be performed for a defendant charged with an indictable offense or disorderly persons offense within 48 hours of arrest. Courts would then consider the assessment before making a decision on pretrial release.

A defendant charged with a crime and detained before trial could not be jailed for more than 90 days before trial under the bill. For a defendant indicted and ordered detained, the bill sets a time frame of 180 days following the return or unsealing of the indictment.

The overhaul's costs are expected to be partly offset by new court fees during the two-year implementation. According to the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services, the bill is projected to result in additional state expenditures of $13 million annually, after new revenues are considered.

Proponents say counties are likely to save money by housing fewer inmates, though there are "questions about money, and they're real," said Assemblyman John Burzichelli (D., Gloucester), a sponsor of the measures. "We're going to have to figure out where that comes from."

Christie praised the Assembly's vote Monday as an example of "bipartisan progress."

Through the bail changes, "our justice system will be both more effective in protecting our communities from dangerous, violent repeat offenders, and fairer to those nonviolent offenders who do not deserve to sit in jail simply because they can't afford even low bail amounts," Christie said in a statement.

The passage of the bail changes represents a win, if not a huge one, for Christie, said Patrick Murray, a political analyst at Monmouth University.

The governor, who is weighing a run for president in 2016, gains "a nice little piece of evidence that will help him continue the narrative that he's a true Republican, tough on crime, and also that he's able to get Democrats in the Legislature . . . to do things they should do," Murray said.

Also Monday, the Assembly approved a plan to fund the state's open space preservation program through corporation business tax revenues.

The plan, which will go before voters in November, would reallocate the 4 percent of corporation business tax revenues already being used to pay for environmental programs, devoting the most to open space preservation. It would increase the revenues dedicated to environmental programs to 6 percent in fiscal year 2020.

Lawmakers and environmental groups had been split on a funding mechanism for the open space program, which has spent the $400 million from a bond approved in 2009.

An earlier proposal in the Assembly supported issuing another bond, while a proposal in the Senate favored using a portion of sales tax revenues.

The plan to use corporation business tax revenues - expected to garner $71 million annually for open space preservation in fiscal years 2016 to 2019, and $117 million annually after that - will mean less money for cleaning contaminated sites and fixing state parks, said Jeff Tittel, New Jersey director of the Sierra Club.

Still, "this is the best we can come up with," Tittel said.

With the Monday deadline to get the open space plan on the November ballot, Tittel said the measure might have benefited the bail reform negotiations.

"There were legislators who would not have come if [open space] was not on the agenda," he said, leaving too few members to pass the bail changes.

Prieto said he did not post the open space plan for a vote in a deal tied to bail reform.

"It actually looks like that was a great ploy on my part," Prieto said. He said he made a commitment to open-space supporters to consider a plan.

While dedicating an extra 2 percentage points of corporation business tax revenues "was something I had to come to grips with," Prieto said, "I'm hopefully being very optimistic that our economy will be there to be able to handle it."


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