In an attempt to help low-income defendants who get stuck in jail before trial, New Jersey is eliminating cash bail this year for people accused of low-level crimes.
A 2013 study by a criminal justice consulting firm, Luminosity, and the Drug Policy Alliance found that nearly 40 percent of people in New Jersey jails were only there because they could not afford to pay their bail. That was the experience of Jeannette Santiago, who was arrested in Camden in 2015. When she first arrived in jail, her bail was set at $700,000.
“I just cried,” Santiago said. “I was like, I’m not going anywhere.”
Santiago eventually pleaded guilty to a felony drug possession charge and was sentenced to probation and time served. That was after she had already spent a year and a half in jail, unable to pay her bail. For Santiago, a mother of two daughters, sitting in jail for that long was a huge deal.
“I missed 17 months of my children’s lives. You know, birthdays and holidays and everything. You miss a lot,” she said.
By eliminating cash bail, officials in New Jersey are trying to stop situations like Santiago’s from happening in the future. They are also aiming to prevent potentially dangerous criminals from being able to make bail and get back onto the street before trial. Under the new law, judges will either hold a defendant who poses a danger to public safety or a flight risk, or release them for free before trial, possibly with a curfew or a GPS monitor.
“We’ve had a system so far that’s based only on wealth,” said Alexander Shalom, a senior staff attorney with the New Jersey ACLU, who supports bail reform. “We want to keep dangerous people in and let non-dangerous people out, rather than keep poor people in and let rich people out.”
Keeping people out of jail will no doubt save money, but bail and trial reform also comes with some costs.
Those who fund New Jersey’s trial courts, for example, said the savings will be outweighed by the costs of more frequent bail hearings and speedier trials.
“We’re going to have to hire new sheriff’s officers, new correction officers, new assistant prosecutors, make capital improvements to our court facilities and some of our jails,” said John Donnadio, executive director of the New Jersey Association of Counties.
Another group that stands to lose out under the criminal justice changes coming to New Jersey are bail bondsmen, who regularly underwrite bail for defendants who cannot pay the full amount.
Ron Olszowy, who has been a bail bondsman for 45 years, acknowledged that he has an incentive to criticize bail reform, but said getting rid of cash bail is bad policy.
“You’re dealing with people who’ve been in jail, they’ve been in prison. And they’re there for a reason: they broke the law,” said Olszowy. “A lot of them are habitual because that’s the lifestyle they know.”
How much will this actually cost New Jersey then? A few different studies have come up with different conclusions on that point. So, the jury’s still out.