- Associated Press - Saturday, December 3, 2016

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) - A major overhaul of New Jersey’s bail system is about to take effect.

New Jersey voters approved an amendment in 2014 that eliminated the state constitutional right to bail that allows defendants to be released from jail on bail unless they can’t come up with the money.

Supporters say low-risk defendants and the poor are unfairly burdened and jails overcrowded under the current practice. The change takes effect next month along with other reform legislation approved two years ago. Instead of the monetary bail set by a judge, courts will rate defendants to determine security risks.

The issue was in news headlines again last week after Senate President Steve Sweeney unveiled new legislation calling for 20 additional judges to accommodate the bail reform changes.

A closer look at what’s changing:

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HOW IS BAIL CHANGING?

Courts will rate defendants to determine security risks and in most cases rely on pretrial release. Supporters of the law - it passed the Legislature by wide margins - say the change will mean minor offenders can return to work while they await trial, creating a fairer system for many. Under the previous system, offenders were entitled to bail by the constitution and could go free if they had the money, while others would remain behind bars before trial if they couldn’t come up with the cash.

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WHAT ABOUT CRITICS OF THE CHANGE?

The primary opponents of the change have been local governments, who argue that they’ll have to spend $1 million to $2 million to implement the changes, which they say would require more staffing. They argue the change will burden local taxpayers who, they say, are already paying the highest property taxes in the country.

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WHY WERE THE CHANGES NEEDED IN THE FIRST PLACE?

Supporters of the reforms cite jail overcrowding and unfairness to minorities and poorer residents as the top factors leading to change. Sweeney, for example, cited a 2013 study - commissioned by the Drug Policy Alliance of New Jersey, which supported the changes - that showed about three-quarters of all New Jersey inmates were behind bars awaiting trial.

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HOW MUCH WILL THE CHANGES COST TAXPAYERS?

That’s not entirely clear, but some costs and benefits have already been identified. The Office of Legislative Services estimated in 2014 that the state budget would save about $42 million, including savings from no longer housing inmates. It also identified a combined $20 million in costs for legal services and for implementing a digital courts system to accommodate the reforms, as well as $35 million for staff to conduct the risk assessments, monitor defendants and conduct drug tests.

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WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?

The bail reforms go into effect in January.

Sweeney said he hopes to have the legislation creating 20 more judgeships passed this year. Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto has said he supports the idea. Christie’s office declined to comment, citing a policy of not discussing pending legislation.

A commission created by the reform legislation to oversee the new pretrial release system will also have to send annual reports to the governor and lawmakers.


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