Proposed change to NJ bail reform would lock up gun-crime defendants
TRENTON – Faced with surging gun violence in the state’s cities, lawmakers are looking to revise New Jersey’s bail reform system so that more people accused of gun crimes would be detained until their trial.
New Jersey implemented changes five years ago that mostly eliminated cash bail and releases most defendants pending their trial, unless they’re charged with murder or a screening process flags them as high-risk.
A bill, A2426, endorsed Monday by the Assembly Law and Public Safety Committee reverses that presumption for first-degree and second-degree gun charges covered by the Graves Act, which apply to most weapons offenses in the state, including handguns, rifles, shotguns, machine guns and defaced firearms.
A group of urban mayors is advocating for the change, though bail-reform advocates warn it could undercut a successful criminal justice reform that prevents people from being locked up simply because they couldn’t afford even modest cash bail requirements.
“I don’t think that possession of a gun in the commission of a crime should be presumption of innocence necessarily because of the gravity of the offense,” said Trenton Mayor Reed Gusciora, who voted for bail reform as an assemblyman and said he still supports it. “You can’t come back from the innocent victims that are at the other end of the barrel.”
Madeline Bailey, a senior program associate for the Vera Institute of Justice, said the change would worsen existing racial disparities in the state’s jail population. She said rollbacks of bail reforms in other states haven’t reduced their surges in violence.
“We of course understand the urgent need to act swiftly to save lives,” Bailey said. “Yet blaming bail reform, which is the wrong cause, gets in the way of finding the right solutions.”
The bill was amended to remove certain Graves Act charges that were originally covered by the new rebuttable presumption: possession of any destructive device or defaced firearm, possession of a firearm for an unlawful purpose, possession of what’s known as a ‘community gun,’ possession of a firearm while committing certain drug offenses or bias intimidation, or possession of handguns, rifles or shotguns without a permit.
Judge Glenn Grant, the administrative director of the New Jersey courts, said people accused of gun crimes are already being detained in greater numbers than other defendants.
He said the proposed legislation in its original form, before it was amended to be limited to first- and second-degree charges, could have led to more than 2,000 more people a year held until trial – 70% of them minorities, mostly Black men.
In the first six months of 2021, Grant said, there were 1,112 people released on gun-related charges pending their trial. Of those, 122 were later rearrested for serious offenses through January 2022. But 990 others were not rearrested for a serious offense in the time period.
“While no number of serious crimes is acceptable, we should also be concerned about detaining, committing to our jails for the entire pretrial period, such a large number of individuals who were not rearrested for a serious offense,” Grant said.
Public Defender Joseph Krakora said the bail reform program is a data-driven system and that any changes should be supported by numbers and evidence. He said the courts need more time to drill down into the statistical evidence of what the proposed changes would mean.
“Until we get to that point, we would be making a terrible mistake to tinker with a law that has created the best, the fairest and the least discriminatory criminal justice pretrial release system in the country,” Krakora said.
Assemblywoman Annette Chaparro, D-Hudson, said people of color are also the victims of the gun crimes in cities and don’t trust the data when their “community is so hot with violence.”
“We read about how tragedy happened and this person was arrested and released, but they committed another crime and now there’s blood on their hands – blood on all our hands,” Chaparro said.
Rob Nixon, a lobbyist for the New Jersey State PBA, said there needs to be a broader conversation about how bail reform is working.
“What was sold to law enforcement when it passed is not what happened in reality,” Nixon said. “The fact we’re having this discussion today really says that it is not functioning as it was promised, in our opinion, unless the idea was just to open up the prison door and let everybody out. We should not be having a discussion about violent offenders and whether they should or shouldn’t be detained.”