Sen. Joe Cryan said the bills may not move until 2022. (Courtesy of New Jersey Senate Democrats)
A legislator who proposed making it easier to jail people who are charged with gun crimes withdrew his bill Monday in response to critics’ concerns that it could land thousands more people in prison and disproportionately impact people of color.
Sen. Joseph Cryan (D-Union) said he plans to reintroduce the bill next month after he makes changes to ensure it doesn’t ensnare too many people before they’ve had their day in court.
“The bill may, in fact, go a little bit too far,” Cryan told the Senate Law and Public Safety Committee, which was set to vote on it.
Cryan said he shared critics’ concerns that the bill could leave far more people behind bars than the “bad actors” and repeat offenders the legislation’s sponsors intended to target.
An identical bill sponsored by Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly (D-Passaic) cleared the Assembly’s Law and Public Safety Committee last week, despite objections from civil rights groups and New Jersey Public Defender Joseph Krakora, who warned it would hike incarcerations in a state that has halved its prison population in the past decade.
Law enforcement now must demonstrate why a defendant, other than those charged with serious offenses like murder, should be detained pretrial. Under Wimberly’s and Cryan’s legislation, defendants charged with certain gun crimes instead would automatically be held unless they’re able to persuade a judge they pose no risk of flight or re-offense. It would apply to people charged under the Graves Act, which sets mandatory minimum sentences for certain gun crimes, including unlawful possession of firearms.
Mayors of some of New Jersey’s cities support the bill, saying it would curb gun crime.
Yannick Wood of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice told committee members Monday the bill undermines recent criminal justice reforms, including bail reform.
“We all want to be safe, but a kneejerk response to the failed tough-on-crime policies of the past will not make us safer in the long run and will only bolster a racist system of mass incarceration,” Wood said. “The undeniable impact of this legislation is that it will increase the racial disparities in our jail system.”
New Jersey already has the highest racial disparities in incarceration in the nation, with Black people accounting for 42% of people held in county jails even though they comprise 15% of the state’s population, Wood said.
During last week’s Assembly Law and Public Safety Committee meeting, Judge Glenn Grant, the courts’ administrative director, said the 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.
Cryan acknowledged he doesn’t want the bill to erode criminal justice reforms.
“Many of you who have worked on bail reform understand it to be a breathing, living document, but also a successful implementation, and frankly, most consider a national standard,” Cryan said. “It’s clear the impact of this bill is significant to the courts and to the judicial system as well.”
He said he will amend the bill to restrict those impacted to “more serious offenders” who have histories of “the continued use of a firearm.”
Wimberly’s office didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Robert Nixon testified in support of the bill on behalf of the Association of New Jersey Rifle and Pistol Clubs.
“If you commit a crime with a gun in New Jersey, you should not be given a slap on the wrist,” Nixon said.
Nikita Biryukov contributed to this story.
GET THE MORNING HEADLINES DELIVERED TO YOUR INBOX
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.