State Of New Jersey Alters Its Bail System And Upends Legal Landscape
PATERSON, N.J. – Under an overhaul of New Jersey’s bail system, people like Jamie Contrano may be considered a flight risk, as well as a threat to public safety, and they may even be detained while they await trial.
39-year-old Ms. Contrano was charged with possessing four envelopes of heroin. She also failed to show up for more than a dozen court appearances over the years. This makes her an ideal candidate for high bail and a lengthy jail sentence. Defendants like Ms. Contrano are being considered a flight risk and a threat to public safety under New Jersey’s bail system that went into effect on 1 January. Before the law was passed, judges would allow the release of suspects as long as they met certain conditions.
According to Judge Ernest M. Caposela, who oversees Passaic County, Ms. Contrano’s case was tricky because she had a job at a carwash and she was also seeing a doctor who specialized in addiction. Therefore, he decided to let her out. The judge decided that since she had a disease, it would not be suitable to keep her in jail for five to six weeks. She might stay out of trouble on the road, but sitting in jail would do more harm to her health.
In 2014, the legal landscape was sharply altered when voters supported amending New Jersey’s Constitution to almost eliminate cash bail. The move placed the state at the forefront of a national movement which was aimed at changing a bail system that discriminates against poor defendants, according to critics. Many of these poor defendants are Latinos and blacks. The majority of these defendants, who are held behind bars for low-level offenses, often end up losing their jobs because they are unable to come up with modest bails. Other times, they have their children taken away from them and have their lives upended.
The changes in New Jersey’s laws have been backed by Governor Chris Christie. The changes closely mirror those changes which were adopted by the federal judicial system as well as the District of Columbia. Monetary bail in criminal proceedings had been shunned a long time ago by the District of Columbia. Although states like Colorado and Kentucky and a few others have pursued bail changes, the recent decision by New Jersey has had the most far-reaching overhaul.
Even though bail is still an option in these cases, most judges have nearly done away with it. In the first 4 weeks of January alone this year, a total of 3,382 cases were processed statewide, and judges set bail only three times in these cases. 283 defendants were held without bail because they were either accused of a very serious crime or they were considered a significant flight risk.
The state’s chief justice, Stuart Rabner, stated that any defendant who appeared in court a year ago would have been forced to post bail in a majority of cases. Moreover, one in eight inmates was being held because they could not post bail of up to $2,500 which is the typical bail amount set for any minor offense. Bail bond agents usually seek 10% of the bail amount, which makes $250 in cash. Quite a few defendants cannot even afford to pay that.
The new overhaul has provoked protests from the bail bond industry, which state that the system is allowing dangerous criminals out on the streets. According to a criminal lawyer in New Jersey, the system is simply overloaded. Bail bond agents cannot process the defendants fast enough and they just push people out the door. Many of these offenders are charged for criminal acts such as child pornography, carjacking, and aggravated sexual assault.