Lawmakers across the country have started to make bail reform a priority as it becomes more clear the current system is unfair. Senators Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Rand Paul (R-KY) wrote an op-ed in The New York Times discussing the bail system and their bi-partisan efforts to fix it.
Our justice system was designed with a promise: to treat all people equally. Yet that doesn’t happen for many of the 450,000 Americans who sit in jail today awaiting trial because they cannot afford to pay bail.
Whether someone stays in jail or not is far too often determined by wealth or social connections, even though just a few days behind bars can cost people their job, home, custody of their children — or their life.
New Jersey is leading the way by largely ending cash bail in the state. Instead of putting up money for one's release, people who have been arrested are assessed by a risk assessment program and are either released on their own recognizance or are electronically monitored. Those who are deemed to risky are denied release.
Here are the specific reforms New Jersey has made to their bail system:
All but eliminating cash bail for those charged with crimes, instead allowing judges to set different release conditions based on the perceived risk posed by the defendant.
A computer-generated "Public Safety Assessment," which takes into the account the nature and seriousness of the crime along with the defendant's adult criminal history, is used by the judge to determine whether a defendant should be released pending further proceedings, or detained without bail.
Those charged by summons, a decision now made in conjunction with police, aren't eligible for pre-trial detention or release with conditions. The vast majority of defendants are released on their own recognizance, sometimes with conditions that can include electronic monitoring, which prosecutors said can be "geo-fenced" to exclude from specific neighborhoods in gang-related cases.
Prosecutors seeking pre-trial detention now have to reveal more of the evidence they have gathered against a defendant earlier in the case.
But the push for bail reform has met resistance due to fears it will put the public at risk. Under New Jersey's new system, Jules Black was released from pre-trial detention for a felony gun charge because the risk-assessment system said he was safe to be released. He then went on to kill 26-year-old Christian Rogers in a shooting.
Critics argue that while there are problems with the existing bail system, we can't replace it with a system that makes the public unsafe. Innocent people are put at risk and will be harmed because politicians are too soft on crime.
"Two hundred years the bail bonds system has been in effect in America, and for 200 years it has worked," Chapman said on Monday."The fact is, is that people are not in jail because they're poor," his wife added. "They're in jail because they broke the law, or they hurt someone."
Bail reform is a noble idea, but it is important to see the practical effects of what actually shakes out. It's clear there are problems with the current bail system, but the most important thing is to keep the public safe. Everything else should be secondary to that.
Switching from a system where a judge determines bail to a system where a computer program decides whether or not someone should be released makes some people nervous. Judges rely on their experience and judgment to determine bail. The risk assessment system is a black box that has already shown it's not entirely reliable.
In one troubling case brought to light by Elie Honig, director of the state’s Division of Criminal Justice, a 21-year-old Essex County man was released after allegedly inflicting “a deep laceration over the victim’s eye” and despite the fact that he was convicted of unlawful possession of a handgun. In a letter to the acting administrative director of New Jersey courts, Honig wrote that the criteria for detainment “undervalue the danger posed” by defendants who possess firearms while committing crimes.
The fight for equality in the justice system is important and needs to happen. But it might be balanced against the public's safety. Poor people should not have to be detained before their trial because they do not have money. But innocent people should not be put in harm's way either. There needs to be a balance between the two, and right now, we're seeing the public's safety put at risk.