New Jersey is about to end its second year using a pretrial court system that has all but stopped using cash bail to decide which defendants can stay out of jail before appearing in court. And guess what? There’s been no spike in crime.
Critics of bail reform say that forcing defendants to commit some money as a condition of pretrial release is why they show up to trial and keep their noses clean beforehand. Mind you, it was primarily the bail bond industry making this claim, because it has a financial stake in maintaining cash bail. But they weren’t the only ones worried about what would happen to the crime rate when New Jersey allowed more people to remain free before trial.
Thankfully, New Jersey is not seeing an increase in crime. In fact, it’s seeing the exact opposite. Stats collected over the past two years show a significant drop in crime across many major categories. The New Jersey Star-Ledger compared the violent crime numbers from the first nine months of 2016 to the first nine months of 2018 and found a 30-percent drop. Homicides, rapes, robberies, assaults, and burglaries are all on the decline.
Over this same timespan, New Jersey’s pretrial jail population has dropped by 40 percent.
We should, of course, be wary about too much correlation here. First of all, we’re seeing a general drop in violent crime nationwide. And the Star-Ledger is talking about the statistics for the worst, most dangerous crimes. Nevertheless, it is not too soon to say that the reforms have yet to fail.
Under New Jersey’s pretrial system, courts use risk assessment tools to calculate the odds a defendant will commit additional crimes or miss court dates while on release; the calculation is heavily informed by a defendant’s criminal history. With feedback from attorneys on both sides, a judge evaluates these risks and decides the terms of pretrial release for each defendant, calling for varying levels of monitoring depending on risk level. If the judge decides there’s no way to make sure the defendant shows up for court and stays clean on release, the judge can keep him or her detained in jail until the conclusion of the case. Judges detained about 18 percent of defendants in 2017.
In short, the new system appears to be keeping violent and dangerous defendants behind bars while allowing lower-level offenders more freedom as their cases make their way through the court system.
Keeping defendants who aren’t dangerous from languishing in jail is important. Those who are stuck behind bars just because they can’t afford bail often end up feeling like they have no choice but to plead guilty, if only to get out and get things over with. Defendants who are jailed unnecessarily risk losing their jobs, getting evicted, and suffering other economic consequences that destabilize families. Studies show that defendants are more likely to get bad plea deals and receive harsher punishments than they would if they were free. Why? Because they have no leverage with prosecutors, they’re desperate, and sometimes the court system operates so slowly that they serve the equivalent of the punishment in jail before they’re ever tried. For many lower level crimes, the pretrial detention feels no different than being convicted.
When looking at New Jersey’s declining crime rates, one fairly safe conclusion is that the state has thus far succeeded in assessing risk, which allows defendants to fight criminal charges without one hand tied behind their backs. So not only is New Jersey seeing less crime, it’s also seeing less punishment, and that’s a good thing.