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'Historic' NJ Law Allows No Bail In Certain Criminal Cases

New Jersey Attorney General Christopher Porrino
New Jersey Attorney General Christopher Porrino Photo Credit: COURTESY: NJ Governor's Office

Attorney General Christopher S. Porrino today issued a new directive that provides detailed guidance to prosecutors and police for handling dangerous criminals who, for the first time in state history, can be held without bail.

The "historic" amendment to the state Constitution also eliminates cash bail in most cases, which Porrino said hurts poorer defendants who remain jailed on minor charges even when the bail is low. It also mandates speedy trials.

“New Jersey’s bail reform law puts safety first, eliminating a monetary bail system that allowed dangerous criminals to pay their way out of jail, often with proceeds of their crimes, while others charged with nonviolent offenses languished in jail because they were poor,” Porrino said Thursday morning.

“Our directive provides detailed guidance to prosecutors and police on how to use this new risk-based system to best protect the people of New Jersey, while treating defendants fairly," he said.

The new system -- signed into law by Gov. Christie nearly two years ago -- is based on a "risk-based approach" to bail, requiring judges to "assess the likelihood that a defendant will flee, commit new criminal activity, or obstruct justice by intimidating victims and other witnesses," the attorney general said.

In addition to establishing "clear standards and criteria to guide the way police and prosecutors exercise their discretion in deciding when to seek pretrial detention," the new directive "establishes procedural safeguards to ensure consistency in implementing these major criminal justice reforms in New Jersey," he said.

Although the new law focuses on how bail is handled before trial, the provisions "ultimately will affect how cases are handled at every stage of the criminal justice process, from the moment police make an arrest to the time when a defendant is tried or pleads guilty," Porrino said.

His directive, he said, was drafted to promote "fairness, uniformity and cost efficiency" in implementing the new law.

“This new law gives prosecutors powerful new tools to detain and monitor dangerous criminals pending trial,” said Director Elie Honig of the state Division of Criminal Justice. “Our goal with this directive is to enable prosecutors to use those tools effectively and judiciously to protect the community, recognizing that defendants who are unlikely to flee or commit new crimes should not be jailed at taxpayer expense.”

The bail reform law looks to avoid extended time in jail awaiting trial -- except when someone is charged with murder or is facing an ordinary or extended term of life imprisonment.

Although the percentage of those is relativelly low, "the law permits prosecutors within their discretion to apply for pretrial detention and seek to rebut the presumption in other cases," Porrino said.

These include:

  • cases involving certain other serious crimes, including primarily violent first- and second-degree offenses enumerated under the No Early Release Act, crimes involving a firearm under the Graves Act, and crimes involving domestic violence;
  • any case in which the prosecutor believes there is a serious risk that the defendant will flee, will pose a danger to specific persons or the community or "will attempt to obstruct justice or threaten, injure or intimidate a victim, witness or juror."

The process begins with a decision by police and prosecutors regarding whether to charge by complaint-warrant or complaint-summons.

If authorities want to seek pretrial detention of a defendant or, in the alternative, want the court to impose any conditions of release to mitigate risks posed by a defendant, they must charge the defendant by complaint-warrant.

When a warrant is issued by the court, a defendant must be taken to a county jail, where he or she will be held for up to 48 hours.

Within 48 hours, the defendant will have a first appearance in court, during which, if the state has filed a motion to detain, the judge will decide whether to detain the defendant or release the defendant, and what conditions should be imposed if the defendant is released.

In all of those cases when the prosecutor is permitted to apply for preventive detention, the law’s presumption of pretrial release "can be overcome only if the state can establish by clear and convincing evidence that no release conditions will reasonably assure the defendant’s appearance in court, the protection of the safety of any other person or the community, or that the defendant will not attempt to obstruct the criminal justice process." Porrino said.

To help law enforcement and judges make their choices, the state Administrative Office of the Courts developed a computer-based automated risk assessment, known as the Public Safety Assessment (PSA).

The PSA "accounts for the general nature and seriousness of the crime charged, as well as certain electronically stored criminal case and court history data documenting the defendant’s adult criminal and court-appearance history," Porrino said.

It provides three pretrial risk indicators: (1) a six-point “failure-to-appear” scale gauging the likelihood the defendant will fail to appear in court; (2) a six-point “new criminal activity” scale gauging the likelihood the defendant will engage in new crimes if released; and (3) a “new violent criminal activity” flag, which flags defendants who are likely to engage in violent crimes if released.

"A new violent criminal activity flag automatically triggers a presumption that law enforcement will apply for a warrant and the prosecutor will seek pretrial detention," Porrino noted. "The other scores become factors that are considered by law enforcement and judges in making decisions.

"If a warrant is issued so the defendant is jailed, the Judiciary’s pre-trial services program will produce a full pretrial risk assessment that incorporates the PSA but also accounts for other circumstances and factors.

"That report – which includes recommendations about whether to release and release conditions – will be completed by the courts before a defendant’s first appearance."


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