New Jersey's Historic Bail Reform Law is Now in Effect and It's Already Keeping Thousands Out of Jail

In these challenging times, it is important to celebrate our victories in the fields of criminal justice, civil rights and racial justice.  So I want to share the great news about the first full month of New Jersey’s historic bail reform law implementation.


In 2014, the Drug Policy Alliance was successful in getting major bail reform legislation enacted in New Jersey.  The law went into effect on January 1 and the statistics for the first month of the reform are impressive. You can read all about it in this front page story in today’s New York Times.

Under New Jersey’s old system, three-quarters of the people in jail were there awaiting trial, rather than serving a sentence.  The average length of time they spent in jail pending trial was 10 months. New Jersey’s reliance on money bail was the main reason people languished behind bars while awaiting trial prior to January 1.

Money bail is inherently discriminatory.  People with financial resources, regardless of their risk to public safety, can pay for their freedom by posting money bail. Those without money, no matter how minor their offense, are left to rot in jail for months and even years until trial.  While in jail, they lose jobs, housing and connections to their families and communities.

Under New Jersey’s new system, people are given a risk assessment and most are released on nonfinancial conditions and monitored in the community pending trial.

  • Of the 3,382 people arrested in the first month of bail reform, money bail was set in only three cases (less than .001 percent).  
  • Of the 3,382 cases only 283 of those people were detained pending trial (less than 10 percent).  For anyone detained there are now clear, set timelines that prosecutors have to meet rather than a vague undefined “right to a speedy trial” that often extended for years of incarceration.  
  • All of these cases were processed within 24-48 hours. Because it doesn’t take long for something bad to happen to someone in jail. #sandrabland

And these stats don’t take into account the fact that New Jersey has increased the use of summonses as part of bail reform, allowing many other people who previously would have gone to jail to simply be given a summons at the police station and then be immediately released.

What do these numbers mean in real people’s lives?  Previously, 40 percent of the people in New Jersey’s jails were there solely because they lacked the money to post bail and obtain release pending trial.  Three-quarters of those held were people of color.  That system is gone.

Now:

  • People will NOT rot in jail for months and even years just because they are too poor to pay money bail.  
  • People will NOT plead guilty to an offense they didn’t commit or take any bad deal the prosecutor offers just because they are desperate to get out of a cell.
  • People will NOT spend agonizing months in jail only to be released, broken and in pain, when charges are dropped. #kaliefbrowder
  • People WILL return to their homes, their families, their jobs and their communities pending trial. Thousands of people.

And working together we did this. The Drug Policy Alliance planned the bail reform campaign, developed the messaging and strategy, drafted the legislation and built the coalition to support the reform.  We took on the multi-billion dollar commercial bail industry and won.

Our reform isn’t perfect.   But we will keep fighting to make it the best it can be.  Because, although it is difficult to see it sometimes, the arc of the moral universe does bend toward justice.  And working together, the Drug Policy Alliance and our partners are part of the force bending it. 

This piece first appeared on the Drug Policy Allaince Blog

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