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Bail Reform: Both Sides Agree It's Needed

The momentum for bail reform is building. Governors, prosecutors and law enforcement across the country officials agree that that the bail system needs to change. And this agreement comes from both sides of the argument. Police and advocates for victims argue that the current bail system allows violent offenders such as rapists and murderers to go back on the streets, committing additional crimes while awaiting trial for their initial offenses. And the defense bar points out that the current bail system is stacked in favor of the rich - if you have no resources, you can't make bail and may remain in jail for months awaiting trial.

New Jersey's governor, Chris Christie, argues that offenders with a history of violence should be kept in jail until trial so they do not prey on others. However, the spokesman for New Jersey's Public Defenders Office says that punishment or public safety is not the reason bail exists. Rather, the bail system is designed to ensure that the accused shows up for trial.

Governor Christies' position, that bail protects the public, was tested by the Asbury Park Press. The newspaper tracked 9,484 inmates in the Monmouth County Jail for two and a half years. The goal was to determine how often released jail inmates were subsequently charged with violent crimes. The study revealed that 3.1 percent or 297 inmates were charged with violent crimes after being released, suggesting that the threat to public safety may be exaggerated. .

Defense attorneys point out that the current bail system, which favors those who have the resources to make bail, prevents poor inmates from assisting their lawyers with their defenses. They cannot help gather evidence and testimony that might help build stronger cases. They also note that there are numerous instances of people charged with crimes who cannot make bail and who remain in jail for a year or more, only to be acquitted at trial, having been incarcerated for a crime they did not commit. Defense advocates say that judges should be able to consider the strength of the prosecution's case when setting bail.

This is a story that has only begun to develop. Perhaps this year will see a strong effort at bail reform in New Jersey.

Source: Asbury Park Press, "Revolving jail door - is it time for bail reform?" by Andrea Clurfeld, Feb. 12, 2012.

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