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New study of N.J. bail overhaul shows fewer people in jail

A new study shows New Jersey's 2-year-old bail overhaul led to 40 percent drop in the number of people in jail in 2018 compared with 2012

N.J. Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner. (Clem Murray / File Photograph)
N.J. Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner. (Clem Murray / File Photograph)Read more

TRENTON — The state’s judiciary on Tuesday published its annual report on New Jersey’s two-year-old bail overhaul, hailing the largely cash-free system for reducing “unnecessary detention of low-risk defendants.”

The 52-page report found 6,000 fewer people, or 40 percent, in jail in October 2018 compared with the same date in October 2012.

Among the other findings were that defendants spent 40 percent fewer days in jail before trial in 2017 compared with 2014, from about 62 days to 37 days; county jail populations consist of a bigger percentage of high-risk defendants, from 35 percent in 2012 to 47 percent in 2018; and nearly 75 percent of people in jail in 2018 faced serious charges.

The report also found recidivism rates went up just 1 percentage point. While out on bail, about 13 percent of defendants were charged with new offenses. Under the new system, about 14 percent were.

"The state's jails now largely include those defendants who present a significant risk of flight or danger to the community," said Judge Glenn Grant, the acting administrative director of the state's courts.

Added Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner: "The annual report reveals that Criminal Justice Reform has reduced the unnecessary detention of low-risk defendants, ensured community safety, upheld constitutional principles, and preserved the integrity of the criminal justice system."

It’s the second annual report since the new bail system went into effect in 2017, but it’s the first to include data on recidivism rates, court appearances, and racial disparities.

Last year's report detailed challenges to implementing the new program, specifically funding it. The 2018 report showed the program faces financial headwinds because it relies on court fees instead of a more reliable funding source.

Voters approved an amendment in 2014 doing away with the state constitutional right to bail, and in 2017, the Legislature and then-Gov. Chris Christie enacted a law allowing courts to rate defendants to determine security risks.

Before the law, offenders were entitled to bail and could go free if they had the money, while others would remain behind bars before trial if they couldn't come up with the cash.

Reducing racial disparities among those in jail was a key motivation for overhauling the system. The report found that the 2018 jail population had 3,000 fewer black defendants and 1,300 fewer Hispanic defendants behind bars. There were 1,500 fewer white defendants.

Despite what the report called "significant improvements" in reducing the disparity between white and black defendants, the report also found that "the racial makeup of defendants in New Jersey's jails remained similar in some areas."

Specifically, the report said that although the percentage of black women in jail fell from 44 percent to 34 percent, black men made up more than 50 percent of the male jail population.

The ACLU of New Jersey applauded the report’s findings but said more work needs to be done to reduce the gap between white and black populations in jail.

"A system that reduces the number of incarcerated people but does not improve racial disparities is simply not good enough," said ACLU-NJ senior supervising attorney Alexander Shalom in a statement.

The report also found that higher court fees imposed in 2014 to fund the news system aren’t enough to cover costs and that it’s estimated the program will face an “overall negative funding balance” by the middle of next year.