It's doubtful that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., a founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, would approve of the civil rights organization's efforts to block a measure that would provide an alternative for poor defendants who can't afford bail.
Legislation in Trenton would also close a loophole created when New Jersey abolished the death penalty in 2007. Previously, judges could deny bail in death penalty cases, but the end of capital punishment means that even defendants accused of the most heinous crimes are eligible to post bail.
At the other end of the spectrum is legislation to create a program to monitor nonviolent defendants so that they don't have to post bail. That would help reduce the number of inmates languishing in county jails, at significant cost to taxpayers, because they don't have the often small sums needed to make bail.
A number of New Jersey's black religious leaders voiced support for the alternative, saying jail time should be based on a person's risk to public safety, not how much money he has. "Scripture commands us not to take advantage of the poor or cheat them in court," said the Rev. Vanessa Wilson of Pemberton.
Understandably, the state's bail bondsmen are trying to scuttle the legislation, which could put a big dent in their livelihoods. But who would have thought the SCLC would come from Atlanta to counter New Jersey's clergy? Allegations that the cash-starved SCLC received a large donation from reform opponents are believable.
Charles Steele Jr., the SCLC's CEO, may talk the talk of a civil rights leader, but his walk is more like that of a fund-raiser. He helped the organization avoid bankruptcy as its leader in 2004, and he was brought back two years ago because its financial problems had returned.
"I came back to fulfill the dream that we had when I was president before," Steele said, "to go international." Going international apparently costs money. Why else would Steele try to misconstrue the bail legislation by suggesting it would put more poor defendants in jail if they couldn't pay for drug treatment?
Charles Brooks, the SCLC's counsel, paid homage to bail bondsmen, saying it's wrong to depict them as caring only about the cash they collect from defendants. "They are, a lot of times for the poor, their first lawyer in terms of how they got out of the system," Brooks told the Asbury Park Press.
Gov. Christie has called for a special legislative session Thursday on the proposed constitutional amendment needed to deny bail to serious offenders. Similar reforms were recommended earlier this year by Chief Justice Stuart Rabner. Any changes must keep intact defendants' rights to a speedy trial. But that goal is possible if legislators don't become distracted by the bail bondsmen's hired guns.