Nearly Forty Percent of Jailed Individuals Are Incarcerated Solely Because They Cannot Afford Bail
Report Released as Governor Chris Christie and Legislature Debate Bail Reform Options: Advocates Call for a Fairer and More Effective Bail System That Prioritizes Public Safety, Not Access to Financial Resources
Trenton, NJ—County jails in New Jersey are packed with individuals who are incarcerated solely because they cannot afford their often nominal bail amounts, according to a new report released today by Luminosity in partnership with the Drug Policy Alliance.
The New Jersey Jail Population Analysis: Identifying Opportunities to Safely and Responsibly Reduce the Jail Populationexamined county corrections data from 19 of the 21 state counties and found that:
- On any given day, nearly seventy-five percent of the 15,000 individuals in New Jersey jails are awaiting trial rather than serving a sentence.
- The average length of incarceration for pretrial inmates is more than ten months.
- Nearly forty percent of the total jail population has the option to post bail but lacks the financial resources to do so and more than 1,500 individuals could secure their release pending trial with $2,500 or less.
- More than half of Superior Court criminal cases pre-indictment are in backlog status.
The release of the new report comes as Governor Chris Christie and members of the Legislature are debating various reforms to the bail system.
Marie VanNostrand, author of the report, says “The decision to release or detain a person pending trial must be based on the risk the defendant poses to the community and of failing to appear in court. A pretrial system that provides limited or no alternatives to monetary bail often results in the detention of low risk individuals who lack resources and the release of high risk individuals who have resources. Shifting from a resource-based system to a risk-based system will undoubtedly improve public safety and ensure the most efficient and effective use of public funds.
Advocates argue that the driving force behind these inefficiencies is New Jersey’s exclusive reliance on money bail. At the moment, the state publishes a schedule for judges to follow when setting bail, detailing frequently charged offenses as well as advisory monetary ranges. This schedule encourages the Court to indiscriminately impose money bail on all defendants rather than make individualized determinations of whether monetary release is necessary and appropriate.
Advocates also point out that more than half the people in New Jersey jails are there for nonviolent charges and many of them could be safely released with supervision pending trial.
“This report provides the first-ever comprehensive picture of the population in New Jersey’s jails and what it shows is that the current bail system is broken,” says Roseanne Scotti, New Jersey State Director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which commissioned the report. “It can cost New Jersey $30,000 to warehouse a nonviolent individual pending trial—simply because that individual doesn’t have the resources to pay bail amounts as low as a few hundred dollars. The current system punishes individuals and families with few resources and wastes taxpayer money.”
Other states have successfully mitigated jail overcrowding through the implementation of comprehensive and pragmatic bail and pretrial reform policies. Kentucky, for example, has outlawed private bail agencies in favor of a state-run pretrial services agency that conducts evidence-based risk assessments to evaluate the possibility of an arrestee’s non-appearance at trial and threat to public safety. Defendants who are approved for non-monetary release are supervised and provided with necessary and individually-tailored social services until their next court date. Since implementation, the state has documented substantial cost savings, reduced recidivism numbers and achieved stable court appearance rates.
Advocates declare that they will work to get legislation introduced to reform New Jersey’s broken bail system. The legislation will propose four major changes:
- Encourage a system of non-monetary release options.
- Require arrestees to undergo a risk assessment before their initial bail hearing in order for the court to make individualized determinations of what, or if, monetary bail is appropriate.
- Establish a comprehensive pretrial services agency within each county that will monitor and counsel those awaiting trial.
- Eliminate private financial incentives to set high bail amounts by prohibiting the operation of commercial bail bonding companies in the state.