Changes for bill aimed at tweaking bail reform for suspects in gun crimes

Critics’ worries mostly evaporate after legislator narrows focus of bill

By: - June 14, 2022 6:43 am

Sen. Joe Cryan said the bill as amended would get dangerous criminals off the streets and protect the principles of bail reform. (Edwin J. Torres/NJ Governor’s Office)

A measure that would roll back New Jersey bail reforms for a subset of gun crimes appears ready for full floor votes after a round of committee amendments assuaged critics’ concerns by narrowing the bill’s scope.

Lawmakers on the Senate Law and Public Safety Committee on Monday unanimously cleared the bill and its amendments, which removed a series of gun possession charges from the list of crimes for which a defendant would face a presumption of detention before trial.

“The bill does what it’s intended to do, and that’s take violent criminals — the kind of criminals that folks are concerned about being in their neighborhoods and on the streets — off the streets and protects the principles of bail reform as well,” said Sen. Joe Cryan (D-Union), the bill’s prime Senate sponsor.

In 2017, New Jersey eliminated cash bail in favor of a system that gives judges broad latitude to hold or release defendants awaiting trial based on their risk of flight and reoffense. Under the new system, most defendants face a presumption of release, meaning prosecutors must show by “clear and convincing evidence” that they should be held while awaiting trial.

Cryan’s bill has drawn plaudits from urban mayors who have urged action amid a surge in gun violence in New Jersey’s cities, but earlier versions drew worries from civil rights advocates, criminal justice reformers, and the courts.

The latter groups in March warned the bill would roll back much of the progress New Jersey has made in cutting the number of defendants held before trial because they could not afford bail.

But much of the concern appeared allayed by Monday morning. Some who had earlier expressed concerns about the bill — Judge Glenn Grant, the administrative director of the state’s judiciary; the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey; the state Office of the Public Defender — submitted testimony in favor of the amended bill.

“The original bill cast a wide net and, frankly, did what it’s supposed to do: It created the kind of debate that allowed us to take a look at it, have reasonable input, listen to folks’ concerns, and come up with a better bill,” Cryan said.

Not everyone is satisfied. Marleina Ubel, a policy analyst for left-leaning think tank New Jersey Policy Perspective that opposed the proposal in March, said she’s worried the state had ignored a statutory requirement to study the disparate impacts the bill could have along racial lines.

“I did say in my testimony that we support the amendments that were passed, and the only reason that we are not fully supporting this bill is because there is no racial impact statement,” she said, adding, “Everyone has made a compromise with this bill.”

Under a 2018 law signed by Gov. Chris Christie, the Office of Legislative Services must prepare and post publicly a statement measuring how any criminal justice bill, resolution, or constitutional amendment will affect New Jersey’s communities of color.

Ubel said such statements are critical in New Jersey, which has the worst Black-white prison population disparity in the nation, but the statutory requirement is regularly ignored.

Because it was amended, the bill must once more clear an Assembly committee before reaching a full vote before the chamber. Cryan said he hopes it will land on Gov. Phil Murphy’s desk by the end of June.

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.

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.