TRENTON - Gov. Christie, a former federal prosecutor, wants a constitutional amendment on the state ballot in November to change the state's bail law so certain violent offenders are kept in jail until their trials.
The change would mirror the federal system and bring New Jersey in line with other states that give judges more leeway in forbidding bail to the accused.
Christie offered no specifics but said pretrial detentions would be allowed if evidence suggested that a defendant might not return to court, or if a defendant's release could lead to violence against witnesses or others.
"Making changes to our bail laws is a commonsense move to stop preventable crimes from occurring by allowing a judge to use his or her commonsense approach to decide whether someone should be released or not," said Christie, who was flanked by the attorney general and several county prosecutors at a Statehouse news conference.
Camden County Prosecutor Warren Faulk, who was not at the news conference, endorsed the idea, noting that even those charged with murder can post bail of up to $1 million by leveraging family members' property. While out on bail, a person could intimidate potential witnesses.
"We might have difficulty proving it because the situation was so severe that the individuals won't tell us they were intimidated," he said.
Faulk also said that bail was a problem when foreigners flee, and in domestic violence cases, where prosecutors seek to protect the abused.
"We can get a restraining order, but it's just a piece of paper," he said.
First announced at his State of the State speech last month, Christie's plan dovetails with another gubernatorial proposal, yet to be detailed, that would divert nonviolent drug offenders to treatment instead of prison. While the constitutional amendment would theoretically increase the number of people incarcerated, his treatment proposal would lower that number, he said.
Christie, the state's U.S. attorney for seven years before becoming governor, brought several former federal prosecutors into his administration. The proposal, he said, was born of their experience in the federal system, where prosecutors can request pretrial detention for certain criminal suspects.
"It's those people with a long history of violent crimes that will be most affected by this proposed amendment," Christie said.
To make the change, the Democratic-controlled Legislature must first vote to put it on the ballot as a proposed amendment to the state constitution, which now mandates bail. If approved by voters, it would then be finalized in a more detailed statute that would have to pass the Legislature and be signed by the governor.
Democrats didn't oppose the proposal Tuesday. But Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D., Essex) said bail reform "is just one aspect of what can be done to tackle the increasing concerns about crime" during the Christie administration. She said budget cuts that have contributed to police layoffs also must be addressed.
A former federal prosecutor under Christie who is now attorney general, Jeffrey Chiesa, spoke of protecting victims and preventing witness intimidation.
"If you're a victim of a crime, you shouldn't have to worry about whether the person's given bail and worry about whether they are a danger to the community," he said.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which monitors the way government handles criminal justice issues, said in a statement that it was "pleased" the bail system was being reviewed but warned that there needed to be safeguards.
Specifically, ACLU New Jersey policy counsel Alexander Shalom said that because trials often drag out in New Jersey, those charged with a crime they did not commit could plead guilty to avoid a year behind bars awaiting trial. Therefore, "we must also ensure that those who are presumed innocent have a real opportunity to have their day in court," he said.
He also said the state should look at alternative forms of detention that are common in the federal system, such as ankle bracelets and home confinement.