On January 1, 2017, New Jersey’s criminal justice system began implementing one of its most significant changes in years. We transitioned from a system that relied predominantly on monetary bail to one that gives a much greater focus to a two-part test: 1. Will the defendant show up for trial if they are released? 2. Is the defendant likely to commit another crime while awaiting trial? Under the new risk-based system, those who present a substantial risk of danger or flight will be detained pending trial. Those who don’t present these risks will be released on judicially imposed conditions.
Criminal justice reform is a heavily debated topic. A virtually endless array of factors is considered to measure the rights of the accused against the safety and security of our communities. Yet, still, this system is not perfect, as evidenced recently in several highly-publicized instances. It is, however, a good start. The old bail system was particularly inequitable to poor defendants who were unable to post bail, even after being charged with relatively minor offenses. As a result, these defendants often lost their jobs, along with their access to medication and mental healthcare treatment, all while being cut off from their family, for months and even years, without a trial. This has put a great deal of pressure on the defendant to plead guilty, even when they are innocent, because the amount of time they would spend in jail awaiting trial would actually be longer than the potential sentence with a guilty plea. This is patently unjust.