The mother of a man allegedly killed this year by a repeat offender, filed suit Monday in federal court against Gov. Chris Christie and state Attorney General Christopher Porrino, among others. She is seeking to end New Jersey’s seven-month-old criminal justice reform, as well as damages for her son’s death, because the alleged killer was released without bail after being arrested for gun possession.
It is the latest legal effort to upend the state’s major reform, which began January 1. Previously, the system released those accused of a serious crime on bail or forced them to await trial in jail. The reform calls for alleged criminals to be released without bail — with varying degrees of monitoring. Those accused of the most heinous offenses are detained until their case goes before a judge.
The shift has pitted civil liberties advocates against the bail bonds industry and some in law enforcement.
Bankrolling the suit by June Rodgers, the mother of the victim, is Nexus Services, a company involved in federal immigrant bail securitization and ankle monitoring. Supporters of the suit, which was announced in front of the federal courthouse in Trenton, included Duane Chapman, who once starred in the Dog the Bounty Hunter television series, and his wife Beth Chapman, president of the National Bail Bonds Association.
‘Stained by blood’
“Your legacy, sir, will forever be stained by the blood of June Rodgers and Vincent Osby’s son,” said Beth Chapman, addressing her comments at Gov. Chris Christie, who championed bail reform beginning in 2012.
The lawsuit charges the governor pushed for the change “to save money on the costs of incarceration” and said the murder of 26-year old Christian Rodgers was “a direct result of Christie and Porrino’s deplorable apathy.”
Rodgers, 26, was walking along a street in Vineland on April 9 when he was shot 22 times. Police charged Jules Black, a 30-year-old with addresses in Vineland and Millville, with the murder. Black had been arrested by state police just four days earlier and charged with unlawful possession of a handgun. The lawsuit states that Black had multiple felony convictions on his record, including resisting arrest, burglary, drug offenses, eluding police, and hindering apprehension. Under the new rules, a risk assessment of Black was done; the prosecutor did not seek his detention; and Black was released.
A mother’s tears
June Rodgers, the victim’s mother, tearfully said her son had “run for his life after being shot and the police had to follow the blood trails to find my baby.” Addressing her remarks at Christie and Porrino, she said, “You have devastated my family and we will never be the same.”
The suit contends Black “would have been locked up” had it not been for bail reform’s use of a public safety assessment created by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, a Texas-based organization that is working on criminal justice reform. It also names as defendants the foundation and Anne Milgram, New Jersey’s attorney general from June 2007 through January 2010 who later worked, according to the suit, as vice president of criminal justice policy with the foundation and was the “chief architect” of the assessment.
Under the criminal justice reform, which New Jersey voters passed as a constitutional amendment overwhelmingly in 2014, information about all those charged in Superior Court is put through an algorithm that calculates what kind of a danger the defendant would be to others and the likelihood of his appearing for trial. Depending on the score returned by the assessment, a person may be released with no conditions, with the need to check in by phone or in person with a pretrial services officer, or with an ankle bracelet and a limit on his ability to leave the home. Alternatively, the defendant may be held until trial.
Virtually eliminating money bail
The law also provides for money bail when a judge deems that appropriate, but the most recent data from the state’s Administrative Office of the Courts shows that just 19 of nearly 22,000 defendants have been released on monetary bail since January 1.
Supporters of the change, including Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner, said the old system was unfair because a person’s wealth, rather than how dangerous he might be, determined whether he was released or held in custody until trial. A study found that 12 percent of those held in county jails were there because they couldn’t post bond of $2,500 or less — and more than two-thirds of these were members of minority groups. At the same time, wealthier individuals who might have committed more serious crimes and could afford bail were able to await trial at home.
Over the first six months of the new program, about 15 percent of defendants have been ordered held until trial, and the number of people being held in jail pre-trial was 20 percent lower on June 30 than at the start of the year. Another part of criminal justice reform guarantees that a person detained must be tried within two years, with other interim deadlines, to try to minimize the amount of time a person must spend in jail before being tried.
Allowing for the confinement of defendants without bail is the focus of an earlier suit filed — a class action filed on behalf of 32-year-old Brittan Holland and a bail bonds firm. Around the same time Black was being released, Holland and his father were getting into a fight at a Camden County bar with fans of rival football teams. Charged with second-degree assault, Holland was eventually released on the requirement he wears an ankle bracelet and check in with pretrial services officers. The federal class action suit, filed in late June, asserts Holland has a constitutional right to money bail that was violated.
The Rodgers suit, and those present at the press conference in Trenton on Monday, contend Rodgers would still be alive if the state still required money bail.
‘A community of supervision’
“The fundamental success of the bail bonds industry is that it creates a community of supervision … In the case of Jules Black, there was no one on the hook,” said Mike Donovan, president of Virginia-based Nexus Services. “If he had been held, we know what would have happened. Had he been released on secured bond we know that there would have been someone on the hook, someone tied to his release. It isn’t rocket science that when you take away accountability you get a bad result and that’s what this is. It’s no accountability and it leads to tragedy.”
Reform proponents dispute that.
Alexander Shalom, an attorney with the New Jersey chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said there is no way of knowing whether Black would have made bail, or whether if he had, he might have taken the same actions.
“They’re comparing the new system with some mythologized system that didn’t exist,” he said. “The murder of Mr. Rodgers was tragic, but it’s wishful thinking that it would not have happened under a system of money bail.”
“I can come up with dozens of cases of people who were released on money bail and then committed horrible crimes,” Shalom added, and cited the fatal carjacking of a lawyer at the Short Hills Mall in 2013 as just one instance. “No system of pretrial release is perfect.”
But Beth Chapman maintained that when those at the local bail bonds office saw that Black had been arrested more than two dozen previous times and that previous bounty hunters had to chase after and apprehend him, no one would have written his bond because of the risk involved.
“Just because he would have been given bond does not mean he would have made bond,” she said.
“This hug a thug campaign has to stop,” said Duane Chapman, a bail bondsman whose exploits were chronicled in two reality shows spanning 11 years. “This has got to stop and we are going to stop it right now.”
Low risk assessment?
The lawsuit cites a second case of someone murdered by a person released without bail, saying Dominick Richards killed Anishalee Cortes, and then himself, on June 13, two months after he was released after he was charged with aggravated assault with a firearm against Cortes as well as other offenses. Although the Essex County prosecutor had sought pretrial detention of Richards, a judge released Richards because the risk assessment found him to be a low risk.
Donovan acknowledged that Porrino issued a new directive last May, even as he declared “bail reform is working,” that is designed to keep more potentially violent criminals behind bars until trial. It directs prosecutors to seek pretrial detention for offenders charged with gun crimes, assault on a police officer, certain sexual crimes involving children, and any indictable offense committed while on release or under post-conviction supervision for another crime.
Still, he said, “At the end of the day, the people of New Jersey are less safe because of criminal justice reform.”
Additionally, the lawsuit attributes racial bias motivations to both Christie and Porrino, saying they knew the assessment would lead to more blacks being released into predominantly African-American neighborhoods, because the ratio of black-to-white pretrial defendants that get incarcerated in New Jersey is 12-to-1. It further states that Christie’s refusal to fully fund the state’s school-aid formula, his pushing his alternative “fairness formula,” and his veto of a bill that would have eliminated the cap on welfare recipients who have additional children prove a “history of disparate treatment of African Americans motivating his policies.”
Spokesmen for Christie and the Arnold Foundation declined to comment. Porrino’s office did not return a request for comment.
The suit claims June Rodgers’ 14th amendment due process rights were violated by the killing. It also asserts product liability claims against the Arnold Foundation and Milgram for designing a faulty product — the public safety assessment — and against Arnold for wrongful death. It seeks an injunction on the use of the assessment and punitive damages.