Tuesday, March 25, 2014

New Jersey -- The Future of Bail in America

Here is a link to a report issued by New Jersey's Joint Committee on Criminal Justice, the committee created by the Chief Justice to address issues at bail: http://www.judiciary.state.nj.us/pressrel/2014/FinalReport_3_20_2014.pdf.

The document is remarkable for many reasons, but mostly because it represents the first time an entire state has figured out the essence of what is needed for bail reform in America and is actually going to work to achieve it. The document reports "problems at both ends of the spectrum," meaning that it is having trouble with both "bail," or release, and "no bail," or detention, in that state.

States can create a model bail scheme by simply recognizing the sorts of things that New Jersey has recognized. First, both "bail" and "no bail" are lawful if we do them correctly. Thus, it is entirely proper for a state to change its statutes (and constitution, if necessary as it is in New Jersey) to set up a scheme in which people are both released and detained pretrial in the proper ratio.

Second, doing each part correctly is not so hard, as we have currently the sort of research, best practice recommendations, and model jurisdictions to help with both "bail" and "no bail." Essentially, the no bail side has to hold up to various constitutional principles designed to make it extremely limited. The bail side must use evidence-based policies and practices designed to attain the three goals underlying the bail process: (1) maximize release of bailable defendants; (2) maximize public safety; and (3) maximize court appearance. The hardest part is simply figuring out how to infuse empirical pretrial risk into a system that has for too long been based on inefficient proxies for risk, such as top charge.

Overall, we must watch the New Jersey experience closely, for if we look at our American bail laws today, we see that virtually every state is in need of reform. In many states, that means changing both statutes and constitutions to best effectuate the "bail/no bail" dichotomy. Moreover, New Jersey is a good example of what we call a "top-down" state, in which prominent state leaders, such as the Governor and Chief Justice, have declared that bail will be reformed. I have personally seen that the progress made by "top down" states eclipses whatever progress we have seen in "bottom up" states, such as Colorado, in which a few committed reformers continually fight special interests without the help of most state leaders.