Most of the inmates in New Jersey’s jails are incarcerated because they were charged with a crime and are awaiting trial, and nearly 40 percent of them would have been released immediately had they been able to afford bail, according to a new study. The report by the Drug Policy Alliance and Luminosity tracks this data as Gov. Chris Christie (R) pushes to reform the state’s bail system. The study finds that backlogs of inmates awaiting trial to determine guilt or innocence are largely responsible for high incarceration rates in the state’s jails, leaving inmates who have not been convicted in pretrial detention for an average of ten months. Others who could afford to post bail – often less than $2,500 — have the luxury of spending their wait at home.
Pretrial detention enables a judge to keep a defendant locked up pending trial if that defendant is deemed to be a significant safety or flight risk, and the defendants who are perceived as the most dangerous are not given the option to post bail at all. The purpose of requiring some defendants to post bail is to incentivize those whose money is held in court to return for their court date rather than flee. But because a large proportion of inmates cannot afford to post bail, it has the consequence of punishing the poor. Detaining an individual who has not yet been proven guilty is particularly inconsistent with our concept of justice, so judges who opt to hold defendants pending trial are typically expected find that there is no other way to ensure the defendant will not flee or threaten public safety, such as frequent check-ins, house arrest, or other electronic monitoring. The study calls for better use of these non-monetary release options, and eliminating the use of private bail agencies that are incentivized to favor high bail amounts over these alternatives. County jails, as distinguished from state and federal prisons, are intended for short-term stays, both during pretrial detention and for lower-level crimes. These facilities, like prisons, are becoming increasingly overcrowded by the bloated U.S. criminal justice system, and one purpose of New Jersey’s bail reform is to make more room in these jails for holding defendants with violent criminal histories. Gov. Christie has called for treatment rather than jail time for nonviolent drug offenders.