Racial Disparities in NJ Bail Persist Despite Reforms: Report

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City Hall, Camden, NJ. Photo by Blake Bolinger via Flickr

Despite significant reductions in the number of individuals held in pretrial detention, racial disparities in bail decisions live on in New Jersey’s justice system, according to a report by the state’s Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC).

“The over-representation of black males in the pretrial jail population remains an area in need of further examination by New Jersey’s criminal justice system as a whole,” Glenn A. Grant, acting administrator of the state’s court system, noted in his annual report to New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy and the state legislature.

But while the report—which is mandated under the 2017 Criminal Justice Reform Act (CJR)—identified the state justice system’s persistent racial inequities, it also touted CJR’s successes.

CJR has changed the state’s pre-trial landscape, replacing money bail and its financiers in the bail bond industry with the Public Safety Assessment (PSA), a tool developed by Arnold Ventures which aids judges in determining pre-trial release based on the calculated risk of an accused person offending before trial or failing to appear.

According to the report, the state incarcerated 6,000 fewer people pre-trial in 2018 than in 2012. Importantly, this decrease did not lead to a significant increase in alleged new criminal activity or failures to appear for those released pre-trial under the PSA system.

New Jersey is not the only state to push for bail reform—in its 2020 budget, New York removed cash bail requirements for 90 percent of defendants, excluding those facing certain violent felonies. The bail reforms are part of a package of state legislation currently awaiting Governor Cuomo’s ink. He voiced his support for the measures, while noting that further bail reform negotiations will continue through the end of the legislative session in June, according to Courthouse News Service.

New Jersey By the Numbers

The AOC report includes the findings from two separate projects with researchers at the University of Chicago and Luminosity, Inc. In both projects, the researchers sought to examine whether policy changes under CJR, enacted in 2017, led to statistically significant changes in criminal justice outcomes.

The first project “compared outcomes and performance measures in 2014 and 2017 for defendants issued a complaint-summons or complaint warrant.” It found that the jail population decreased substantially because defendants were released earlier under PSA than under the old money bail system.

“An extensive review of the actual rates of alleged new criminal activity, court appearance, and alleged new violent criminal activity for […] defendants in 2017 confirms that the PSA has been remarkably accurate in classifying a defendant’s risk,” the report said, adding that “as risk scores increase, actual failure rates of compliance increase in step.”

When comparing defendants released pre-trial in 2014 and 2017, the researchers found that releasing more people before their trials through PSA risk assessments did not lead to statistically significant increases in crime or failure to appear in court.

The second project, conducted with the additional help of the Drug Policy Alliance, compared the 2012 and 2018 jail populations.

The researchers found that the overall jail population declined by 6,000 people, with a two-thirds reduction in people held on bail of $2,500 or less. A larger share of people incarcerated pre-trial were facing charges for violent crimes, suggesting that PSA has prioritized the pre-trial release of people accused of non-violent, low-level offenses.

Racial Disparities

Before delving into changes to racial demographics, the report reiterated that “a fundamental mission of CJR is to ensure that all defendants are treated equally under the criminal justice system, regardless of race, ethnicity, or gender.”

Notably, the report highlighted that New Jersey has incarcerated “3,000 fewer black, 1,500 fewer white, and 1,300 fewer Hispanic individuals” under PSA. The disparity in time spent in jail between arrest and pre-trial release between white and black individuals has also shrunk.

Yet despite these strides, the AOC identified that racial disparities in pre-trial outcomes remain pervasive.

Particularly, it noted that while the share of black women incarcerated pre-trial fell from 44 percent to 34 percent from 2012 to 2018, black men still comprise over 50 percent of the state’s jail population.

In an emailed press release, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of New Jersey praised the report and said it appreciated the AOC’s “commitment to addressing racial disparities.”

But it added, A system that reduces the number of incarcerated people but does not improve racial disparities is simply not good enough.  We intend to continue our advocacy efforts to reduce racial disparities in the criminal justice system and to advance justice.”

The ACLU-NJ said it was time to fund the PSA program from the state budget rather than filing fees, as the state builds upon the CJR framework.

“The opportunity for long-term financial savings due to a sharply diminished New Jersey jail population is real,” the ACLU said.  “A fairer system, families that aren’t disrupted, and stronger communities are worth every penny of our investment in this system.”

Read the full report here.

Roman Gressier is a TCR news intern and contributing writer.

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