GUEST COMMENTARY: Bail reform’s working

By James Calautti
Special to The Observer

As a regular reader of The Observer, I have noticed a disturbing, recurring trend in the Kearny Police Blotter. There is an attitude of condescension or downright hostility by those in law enforcement toward bail reform.

A simple search for the term “bail reform” in the newspaper’s online edition bears this out. It produced 18 results which consisted mostly of articles about suspects who were released with a summons “thanks to bail reform.”

While I can understand the frustration of law enforcement whose job it is to catch those suspected of crimes and would like nothing more than to see them behind bars, we must remember that our whole judicial system is predicated on “the presumption of innocence.” New Jersey’s Criminal Justice Reform Act is part of a wave of other state and local jurisdictions seeking to address the social, economic and racial injustices inherent in America’s cash bail system.

The reliance on cash bail created a two-tiered justice system in America, and before bail reform, a half million people were sitting in jail on any given day who had not been convicted of any crime. With more and more Americans living paycheck to paycheck, even a low bail amount of $250 to $500 for misdemeanors was just too much to afford.

Many people could not post bail quickly and wound up spending weeks or even months behind bars before ever appearing before a judge. This burden disproportionately affected people of color, many of whom lost their jobs and homes, leading to an ever-increasing spiral into poverty and even homelessness, all because they could not afford bail.

Another effect was a higher conviction rate, as many took plea deals, just to get out of jail regardless of whether they were innocent. Others became victims of America’s for-profit bail bond industry, where a commercial bail agent would put up the whole bail amount for a 10% fee, while the suspect’s family would often have to sign over collateral to the agent, such as a home or a car.

The United States and the Philippines are the only two countries in the world with a legalized for-profit bond industry. At a time when nearly two-thirds of Americans do not have enough money in savings to cover the cost of a single $500 emergency, cash bail for minor infractions seems to fly in the face of the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution which prohibits excessive bail.

So what are the outcomes of the Criminal Justice Reform Act here in New Jersey? Have we seen a spike in crime?

No, persons released on their own recognizance are no more prone to commit a crime while awaiting trial than those who had been released under a cash bail system.  They also appear for court at the same rate as those who had been released under the old system, and pretrial detention has plunged, saving the state untold amounts of money necessary to house someone in a county jail.

The injustice of cash bail has been with us for some time, and in 1964, then-Attorney General Robert Francis Kennedy addressed it when he spoke to Congress, saying:  “The rich man and the poor man do not receive equal justice in our courts. And in no area is this more evident than in the matter of bail … This is a cause in which there is great work to be done.”

The Criminal Justice Reform Act is a step toward seeing that we are doing the great work that Kennedy spoke of and living up to his standards which were codified during his eulogy when his brother, Ted, said: “He saw wrong and tried to right it, he saw suffering and tried to heal it.”

The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the writer and do not reflect the opinions of The Observer, its ownership, management or staff.


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