New Jersey Bail Reform: Christie Pushes ‘Urgent Concern’

By John Celock

Calling it an “urgent concern” and saying it is not about politics, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) urged state lawmakers Thursday to pass bail reform measures immediately.

Christie used the special session of the state Legislature that he summoned to Trenton to push his proposed constitutional amendment to end the guarantee of bail for criminal defendants. He said the proposal would make New Jersey’s streets safer, while ending unfair bail amounts for poor inmates. The measure, which is expected to pass the Democratic-controlled state Senate Thursday afternoon, needs to pass both houses of the state Legislature with super majorities by Monday to qualify for the November ballot.

“It is not about politics. It is about the people’s lives who are dramatically altered by what happens in our streets and in our prisons,” Christie said. “We have a system that is supposed to be rooted in fairness but it is no longer serving those aspirations to have a fair and just criminal justice system.”

Christie summoned the special session to address delays in the Democratic led state Assembly in passing the proposal. Assembly leaders had indicated that they might not hold a vote on the legislation before Monday’s deadline, which would push off a statewide referendum on the issue until the November 2015 election.

Christie centered his arguments to lawmakers on two grounds. He said that the automatic right to bail in the state Constitution had led to violent criminals being able to get back on the streets quickly after arrest because they could make bail. He said this led to criminals committing more crimes and to intimidating witnesses in their cases.

The second term governor, who is considering a likely 2016 GOP presidential candidate, described a recent home invasion in the Trenton suburb of Hamilton Township, where two men are accused of threatening to kill an eight-month old child. Christie said that the accused were free on bail from another drug arrest when they committed the home invasion.

“We need to give judges the discretion to look at a career violent criminal,” Christie told lawmakers.

Christie also said that the current system has caused those arrested to be given bail amounts that they could not afford, leaving them sitting in prison. He said this includes those who are innocent of the crimes they are arrested for. He noted in one case, a man lost his job during a four-month stay in prison for a crime he did not commit because he could not afford the bail amount set by the judge.

Under Christie’s proposal, judges would be offered more discretion in setting bail amounts in every case.

Christie relied on his seven-year tenure as New Jersey’s U.S. Attorney heavily in his speech, stressing that he was familiar with criminal justice issues from that time. He said that the federal system allows for judicial discretion in bail and that states that have similar systems have benefited from that.

Christie reminded lawmakers that the issue has been discussed in Trenton for several years and that he has formed a coalition with liberal advocacy groups, who have traditionally opposed the Republican governor, to help push it through the Legislature. He said the measure needs to pass in order to provide greater assistance to urban mayors around the state who are pushing public safety.

Crime issues have been growing in importance in New Jersey following an uptick of crime in several urban centers. The fatal carjacking of a shopper at a mall in suburban Short Hills in December 2013 also helped propel the issue to the forefront of New Jersey voters.

“As a husband and father I am asking that you take our responsibilities for the criminal justice system seriously. Mayors in cities across this state are suffering from the results of violent criminals out on bail. Thwarting the very efforts to make their cities safer. Residents across this state are in fear of walking those streets. Witnesses in those cases are in fear of coming forward. All of those people who count on us to act responsibly are watching. It is our responsibility and there is no reason to wait. We have been discussing this issue for over 2 and a half years.”