A relatively new criminal-justice initiative that is lessening the role of money bail before a person faces trial in New Jersey is already generating some promising results. But top officials from the state judiciary are asking lawmakers for a more sustainable funding source to keep the program running smoothly.
During an appearance yesterday before the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee, Judge Glenn Grant, the acting administrative director of the state court system, praised the new pretrial system that went into effect on a permanent basis in New Jersey in 2017.
Grant said reforms enacted through a collaboration involving all three branches of state government are helping to reduce jail populations across the state while the rates of re-offending or failing to return to court for trial have not changed significantly.
“Two years into its existence, CJR has balanced the protection of the constitutional rights of New Jersey residents with the responsibility to assure community safety,” he said.
But echoing concerns raised in a recent report on the initial results of the state’s new approach to criminal justice — commonly referred to as criminal-justice reform, or CJR — Grant also asked lawmakers to consider creating a permanent source of funding for CJR as it transitions to becoming a fully staffed government program. He also floated the idea of using the state budget to finance the pretrial monitoring system and other facets of CJR, which currently is supported entirely with court-filing fees.
Need for a ‘long-term solution’
“Without a long-term solution, the judiciary will be forced to take cost-cutting measures that would lead to a reduction in essential services, either in CJR, or in other areas,” Grant said.
The initial cost of the proposed funding change would be roughly $15 million, a modest sum given Gov. Phil Murphy’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2020 is $38.6 billion. Lawmakers seem open to making the change, but it would also need Murphy’s support, and it remains to be seen whether his administration is ready to sign off.
At the heart of the state’s new pretrial system was the decision to no longer use defendants’ ability to pay monetary bail as a prime factor in deciding whether they should remain in jail following arrest. Instead, the state now relies on an assessment of each individual to determine whether their release would pose a danger to others. The likelihood of their appearing back in court is also a factor in the assessment.
A report on the results of the first two years of the new system was released last week. It found that jail populations in New Jersey have dropped since the reforms were enacted, which was one of the intended results. The report also found there’s been no noteworthy increase among those awaiting trial of either re-offending or not showing up for trial.
Grant gave the new system high marks yesterday as he told committee members there are now 6,000 fewer people in county jails on any given day in New Jersey. Meanwhile, nearly 75 percent of those who are in jail are those charged with serious offenses, and not individuals who simply cannot afford to pay bail.
Skeptics ‘have been discredited’
“Additionally, concerns about a possible spike in crime and ‘failures to appear’ did not materialize,” Grant said.
The initial results of the changes to the bail system drew praise from several lawmakers on the budget committee yesterday. Sen. Declan O’Scanlon (R-Monmouth) also noted that in the run-up to the adoption of the reform, some opponents offered dire predictions of increased crime and chaos within the criminal-justice system.
“There’s no question that they have been discredited, dramatically,” O’Scanlon said.
Also weighing in during a recent appearance before lawmakers was Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, who noted the new system has provided a way for prosecutors to keep the highest-risk offenders behind bars without any bail.
“From every angle that I can look at, I think it’s working,” Grewal said.
But the report released last week also raised the concerns about the long-term sustainability of funding for the system’s new pretrial services, including the monitoring of those being released pending trial. Initially set up with court-filing fees as a dedicated funding source, long-term projections suggested the cost of running the new system would eventually outpace the total haul from the filing fees. Grant suggested yesterday that the program has nearly reached that point.
Program projected to go into the red
According to budget documents, the filing fees will generate roughly $22 million in FY2020, but the cost of running the program is projected to hit $37 million.
The mechanics of the proposed solution that Grant discussed with lawmakers would involve putting revenue from the filing fees directly into the state budget’s General Fund. It would also call for an expenditure from the General Fund to be made annually to cover the program’s cost. That would ensure any deficit would be covered by the state instead of requiring cuts to be made elsewhere in the judiciary budget.
“An initiative of CJR’s magnitude deserves — I would argue, needs — a reliable, sustainable source of funding to continue to fulfill its mission fully and properly,” Grant said.
After the hearing ended, committee chair Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen) called the judiciary’s proposed funding solution “very reasonable.” And he suggested it could be implemented through language added to the appropriations bill that lawmakers will send to Murphy before the June 30 deadline for a new state budget.
“The savings, the fairness, the societal benefits, that’s a huge success for this Legislature,” Sarlo said. “We need to get them more money and we need to ensure these people are getting speedy trials.”
While Grant said he has discussed the issue with the Murphy administration it’s unclear whether the funding proposal is getting serious consideration. Representatives from the Department of Treasury could not be reached for comment yesterday.