New Jersey overhauled its bail system under Christie. Now some Democrats want to roll it back.
Eight years ago, then-Republican Gov. Chris Christie teamed up with Democrats to pass a major overhaul of New Jersey’s criminal justice system, ushering through legislation that made the state among the first in the nation to effectively eliminate cash bail.
There was little political uproar.
Now, some of the state’s most powerful Democrats want to roll back those changes amid rising crime and political lessons from neighboring New York, where another bail overhaul became a major issue in the midterms and fueled key House losses for the party.
The new push in Trenton, likely to win supporters among Republicans who were already pushing to change the law, represents a stunning reversal for the social justice movement, demonstrating just how rapidly recent calls for reform have given way to a new era of tough-on-crime politics. It comes as Democrats like Eric Adams, a former cop and now the mayor of New York, focus daily on a public safety-first message.
One of New Jersey’s most powerful Democrats, state Senate Budget Chair Paul Sarlo, is behind the new proposal. He’s introduced legislation that would create a “rebuttable presumption” of pre-trial detention for many serious offenses and “any other crime for which the prosecutor believes there is a serious risk” of flight, danger or obstruction. Another top Democrat, Senate President Nicholas Scutari, says he’s “open-minded.”
The proposal follows a new law signed by Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy in June that makes it easier to detain people charged with crimes involving firearms possession.
“Bail reform was meant to help non-violent people suffering from mental illness and drug addiction to stay out of jail,” Sarlo said in a phone interview. “It was not intended for violent and repeat criminals such as burglars and car thieves who belong in jail.”
‘We need to address the issue’
In 2014, New Jersey voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment that allowed judges to deny cash bail to defendants who posed a serious flight or safety risk. At the same time, the Legislature passed a bill creating a “public safety assessment” as an alternative to bail. Previously, New Jersey law had granted all defendants a right to bail, although those charged with capital offenses could be denied. When New Jersey eliminated the death penalty in 2007, all defendants became eligible for bail.