Under an overhaul of New Jersey’s bail system that went into effect Jan. 1, judges are now considering defendants’ flight risk and threat to public safety in deciding whether to detain them while they await trial. Otherwise, they are to be released, usually with certain conditions, the New York Times reports. The sharply altered legal landscape after voters in 2014 amended New Jersey’s Constitution to eliminate most cash bail put the state in the forefront of a national movement aimed at changing a bail system that critics say discriminates against poor and minority defendants. Defendants languishing in jail, unable to come up with modest bails for low-level offenses, often have their lives upended, losing jobs or having children taken away from them.
New Jersey’s changes, which were backed by Gov. Chris Christie, closely mirror those adopted by the federal judicial system and the District of Columbia, which have long shunned monetary bail in criminal proceedings. While a handful of other states like Kentucky and Colorado have pursued bail changes, New Jersey has the most far-reaching overhaul. Bail is still an option, but the reality is that judges have nearly done away with it. In the 3,382 cases processed in the first four weeks of January, judges set bail only three times. An additional 283 defendants were held without bail because they were accused of a serious crime or were a significant flight risk, or both. The bail bond industry says the system is allowing dangerous criminals out on the streets. “The system is just overloaded,” said Richard Blender, a lawyer who represents several bail bond agents. “They can’t process these defendants fast enough. They are just pushing people out the door. You’re talking about child pornography, carjacking and aggravated sexual assault.”