Lawmakers weigh changes to bail reform, citing uptick in gun violence

By: - March 15, 2022 7:17 am

Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly (Courtesy of New Jersey Assembly Democrats)

It would be harder for people charged with some gun crimes to be released from jail before trial under a bill advanced by an Assembly panel Monday, a move opposed by advocates who fear a rise in incarceration split heavily along racial lines.

The bill, approved by the Assembly Law and Public Safety Committee, shifts the burden of proof in pretrial detention hearings involving eligible offenses onto defendants, requiring they convince a judge they pose no risk of flight or re-offense. Existing rules require law enforcement to argue a given defendant should be detained until trial.

Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly (D-Passaic), the bill’s prime sponsor, said the measure is intended to prevent the release of people who are using firearms to commit crimes.

“That’s the one we’re dealing with,” Wimberly said. “We’re not going after any low-hanging fruit with parking tickets, child support, jaywalking. None of that stuff.”

Under the bill, some individuals charged with crimes subject to the No Early Release Act — these include crimes like kidnapping, aggravated sexual assault offenses, and murder, among others — or certain gun-related crimes subject to the Graves Act would face the presumption of pretrial detainment.

The Graves Act imposes mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines for certain crimes involving firearms and was amended in 2008 to include offenses on unlawful possession of firearms.

Mayors of some of New Jersey’s cities have backed the bill as a means of curtailing gun crime. The 1,409 fatal and non-fatal shootings recorded in New Jersey State Police data last year were up from 1,363 in 2020, 918 in 2019, and 887 in 2018. State Police data includes victim statistics for only 11 months in 2018 and in 2019.

“We have to think of the citizens’ safety, the security of their neighborhoods, which have been shattered the last two years, and I think this is a reasonable amendment to the bail reform that I supported, that you all supported,” said Trenton Mayor Reed Gusciora, a former assemblyman.

New Jersey eliminated cash bail in 2017 after a study found many of those jailed while awaiting trial were kept locked up because they could not afford bail, sometimes set as low as $500. In its place, the state enacted a system that allows judges to release or detain defendants based on their risk of flight and reoffense.

Certain serious offenses, like murder, are not eligible for pretrial release, though the ultimate say usually rests with judges.

Newark Corporation Counsel Kenyatta Stewart, speaking on behalf of Mayor Ras Baraka, joined Gusciora and Paterson Mayor Andre Sayegh in support of the bill.

The judiciary did not take a position on the bill Monday, but Judge Glenn Grant, the courts’ administrative director, said proposed changes could double the rate at which people charged with offenses under the Graves Act are detained while awaiting trial.

Roughly 70% of those now detained would be Black, Grant said, citing recent analysis produced by the Administrative Office of the Courts.

“What we don’t want to happen is to see that there is an overwhelmingly disparate impact to communities that are also impacted by gun violence,” the judge said.

Civil rights groups and New Jersey Public Defender Joseph Krakora, who oppose the bill, warned the measure would lead to a rise in incarcerations in a state that has cut its jail population by thousands in recent years.

While fewer pretrial releases could curtail some violent crime, Krakora said the vast majority of those who would be kept behind bars while awaiting trial would not have reoffended.

“That to the extent you will detain a certain number of people and theoretically avoid a certain number of violent crimes, you’re going to detain hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of individuals who don’t pose that risk, who don’t pose a high risk of reoffense,” he said.

The rearrest rate for people charged with Graves Act offenses and released pretrial was 11%, according to the Administrative Office of the Courts. The rearrest rate for individuals charged with any felony was 14.4%.

Representatives from the New Jersey branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, the Vera Institute of Justice, and progressive think tank New Jersey Policy Perspective echoed Krakora on the issue.

The bill cleared the committee with a single no vote. Assemblyman Erik Peterson (R-Hunterdon) voted no, saying he wanted an amendment sought by the Association of Rifle and Pistol Clubs that would exclude owners of banned firearms grandfathered in under a 1990 law from being swept up in the gun violence measure.


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Nikita Biryukov
Nikita Biryukov

Nikita Biryukov most recently covered state government and politics for the New Jersey Globe. His tenure there included revelatory stories on marijuana legalization, voting reform and Rep. Jeff Van Drew's decamp to the Republican Party. Earlier, he worked as a freelancer for The Home News Tribune and The Press of Atlantic City.