Major changes to the processing of criminal cases in New Jersey will take effect on January 1, 2017. On the surface, these changes address two areas of criminal practice: (a) pretrial release and bail; and (b) speedy trial. However, it is anticipated that these changes will ultimately affect virtually every aspect of a New Jersey criminal case. This post is the first of a series addressing criminal justice reform in New Jersey.
Pretrial Release and Bail – Criminal cases in New Jersey are commenced with the issuance of a Complaint-Summons or Complaint-Warrant. As under the current system, defendants receiving Complaint-Summonses will simply get a court date, and then be released. However, the new procedures significantly affect defendants who receive Complaint-Warrants. Under the existing procedure, these defendants are given a dollar amount that they must post for bail. They are released if they can post that bail, and remain in custody if they cannot. The primary issue that the changes to the current system seek to address concerns defendants who receive low bails (often as low as $500.00), but are forced to remain in jail – sometimes for months, if not longer – because they cannot afford it. The changes focus upon two problems that result from jailing this group of defendants. First, these defendants, whose economic circumstances are often fragile at best, frequently lose their jobs and their homes as a result of prolonged incarceration. Further, jailing people costs money, and the State, the counties and the municipalities, cannot afford it. Thus, the changes are designed arrange for the prompt release of non-violent defendants who are not flight risks so that they do not face the consequences of needless incarceration stemming from their inability to pay even a modest bail, and to conserve public funds that could be better spent elsewhere.
The new procedures result in a shift from a system of pretrial release and bail that is based upon a defendant’s economic resources to a system that focuses more on an assessment of the likelihood that a defendant will appear for court when instructed to do so, as well as the danger they present to the community if they are released while their case is pending. These procedures represent a substantial departure from current bail practice in New Jersey. The precise mechanics of the new bail system will be the subject of a future blog post.