Six years ago, a major catalyst for pretrial reform in New Jersey came in the form of a report showing that nearly 40 percent of people in jail in New Jersey were there because they could not afford bail. Several years - and a long road - later, New Jersey passed laws to provide sweeping changes to their pretrial justice policies and practices. Since January 1, 2017, when new laws went into effect, we have been watching for the outcomes of these changes, not just in terms of reducing arrests (bookings) and replacing cash bail, but in restricting detention and raising equity. We also needed to see rates of court appearance and public safety - the two purposes of the bail decision. We wanted data from the courts. And now, we have it.
As a result of expanded use of citations-summons, the jail population has declined significantly. Since 2015, when preparation for pretrial reforms began, the pretrial jail population has fallen by nearly 44 percent. Money bonds have been functionally eliminated and de-facto detention to due an inability to pay has nearly disappeared. The few held for detention hearings are afforded full due process and then some are released with conditions of supervision. In 2018, the rate of pretrial detention was roughly 6 percent, meaning 94 percent of people were able to participate in their defense from home, with family, at their jobs, or in school, where they were best equipped to do so. The appearance rate in 2017, the most recent year cited in the report, was nearly 90 percent, only a slight decrease from before the reform.
What about public safety? According to the New Jersey State Police Uniform Crime Report, crime rates, particularly for violent crimes, have decreased since the start of reforms. We don’t imply any causality here - only to note that it didn’t go up simply because fewer people were detained before trial. Also, the rate of new arrests for those awaiting trial stayed nearly the same, around 13 percent.
As to raising equity, there is still work to be done. While the increased rate of release has benefitted all people, African Americans are still disproportionately represented in jails. The proportion of African American men in jail is still over 50 percent, as compared to 15 percent in New Jersey’s general population. The Judiciary has made a commitment to address this issue, stating that it will “continue to examine the effect of CJR (Criminal Justice Reform) on racial disparity in the criminal justice system and to ensure that all defendants are treated equally by the courts.” While important, we also know that this commitment to equity must start with our policing and prosecutorial practices. We’ll keep watching to see how they address these policy issues, and for now, celebrate the successes of their pretrial justice reforms.