Report says criminal justice reform weathered pandemic
State’s jail population declined in 2021, speedy case resolutions plummeted
The number of New Jersey inmates held pretrial on small amounts of bail remained low even as speedy trial resolutions slowed, a new report says. (Fran Baltzer for New Jersey Monitor)
New Jersey’s jail population remained above pre-pandemic levels in 2021 despite declining slightly from the prior year, according to an annual report released Wednesday by the state Judiciary that says trials slowed drastically amid the COVID-19 crisis even as courts continued to make quick decisions about bail.
And while the percentage of defendants charged with indictable offenses on pretrial release rose from about 14% pre-pandemic to 20% in 2020, the number of defendants in 2020 who were released before trial and rearrested and charged with the most serious of crimes in the next 22 months remained at less than 1 percent.
Alexander Shalom, senior supervising attorney of the ACLU of New Jersey, said the report provides the data to support the conclusion that “New Jersey’s bail reform system works,” but noted the Garden State’s criminal justice system still has issues to address.
“The pretrial jail population shrunk in 2021 without a significant increase in the number of people rearrested for serious crimes — and people showed up to court at an even greater rate. The report also identified areas where improvements can be made: racial disparities persist, jail populations are still too high, and more people got rearrested in 2021 than in 2020,” he said.
The report’s release comes as some lawmakers seek to roll back some aspects of the state’s bail reform, particularly for individuals charged with gun crimes, amid a surge of violence earlier this year.
Courts by the numbers
A single-day snapshot taken by the Judiciary on Oct. 6, 2021, found 8,643 individuals were held in New Jersey jails, down from the 8,930 individuals recorded on an October day the previous year. An October 2019 survey found 7,937 jailed individuals in the state.
Court officials pointed to pandemic delays to explain the rise, noting that remote proceedings held for much of 2020 and 2021 — plus space constraints created by the Judiciary’s socially distanced and in-person proceedings — slowed case dispositions and increased the number of individuals awaiting trial.
In 2020, just 48% of cases were resolved within 22 months, compared to 66% in 2019 and 77% in 2018.
At the same time, New Jersey Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner said the reformed system withstood the pandemic and succeeded at keeping the number of New Jerseyans detained while awaiting trial for minor offenses low.
“If the true test of a program is how it responds in a crisis, [Criminal Justice Reform] responded remarkably well to the challenges presented by COVID-19,” he said in a statement.
During 2021’s October snapshot, just 36 individuals — less than half a percent of the state’s total jail population — were held before trial on bail of $2,500 or less.
Though that figure represents a slight increase from the 14 individuals held under the same circumstances in 2020, it is a marked decrease from prior years. In 2019, 187 residents were detained pretrial on small amounts of bail, and in 2018, the number was 390.
Despite challenges posed by the pandemic, courts continued to make pretrial release decisions speedily. Judges made initial pretrial release decisions within 24 hours in 77% of cases, and nearly 99% of such decisions were made within 48 hours.
Out of 76,100 defendants released pretrial in 2020, 482 were subsequently charged with offenses like murder, manslaughter, and aggravated assault. About the same number were rearrested on an unlawful weapons possession charge.
‘Alarming’ racial disparities
The broad racial disparities in New Jersey’s jail population persisted in 2021.
Black residents accounted for 60% of the jail population during the 2021 snapshot.
“Black people continue to be disproportionately detained. Even more concerning is the spate of new bills that will make it easier to detain people and may increase this alarming racial disparity,” said Yannick Wood, director of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice’s criminal justice reform program. “Instead of retreating to provenly ineffective policies that do little to reduce crime, we should encourage New Jersey to maintain bail reform while working to address the state’s serious racial disparities.”
The share of white residents in New Jersey jails declined slightly from 23% to 22% in 2020, while Hispanic residents made up 18% of those detained.
The courts found Black and Hispanic inmates were more likely to be charged with serious offenses — which the courts defined as any first- or second-degree crime, any violent offense, and any offense subject to the No Early Release Act — than their white counterparts.
Among the Black and Hispanic individuals detained while awaiting trial, 83% were charged with a serious offense, compared to 69% of white inmates.
In June, Gov. Phil Murphy signed a bill that added some gun offenses to the list of crimes that carry a presumption of pretrial detention. That bill initially met with opposition from criminal justice advocates but earned their support after lawmakers amended the legislation to exclude a series of gun possession charges from that list.
“Any proposed solutions need to be tied to actual problems identified in data rather than scare tactics,” Shalom said.
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