Former NJ Division of Criminal Justice director calls bail reform ‘a success’

Hill: A new criminal justice institute at Rutgers University. The attorney who’s heading it up was the director of the New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice in the state Attorney General’s Office. Elie Honig is here to talk about that and more. Elie, good to see you.

Honig: Hi, Michael. How are you doing?

Hill: Congratulations.

Honig: Thank you.

Hill: Tell me about this institute.

Honig: So, we are launching, through Rutgers, a new institute focused on criminal justice and intelligence and security. We are calling it the Institute on Secure Communities. There’s three components. The first one is an academic component where we are teaching students in a new minor on intel studies. There’s a criminal justice aspect of that, there’s a cyber aspect of that, there’s a technical aspect of that. The second one is the Miller Center for Community Protection and Resiliency. What we’re doing from there is trying to take that we had done at the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office in bringing police and communities together in cities like Newark, Trenton and Camden and to bring that model over to Europe. And so, we’re doing work with various cities in Belgium, in France, in England, in Poland. It’s a whole new model in Europe, and I think already the European cities are seeing the benefit of it. The third portion of it, the third center, is the Center of Policing, and there we’re looking to provide policy support to police departments who were involved in the monitorship here with the Newark Police Department. And we’re also looking at new ways to develop and apply big data analytics to criminal justice and to security.

Hill: This is a major step up in terms of crime fighting and dealing with some of the issues society’s dealing with.

Honig: Yes, I think what we’re trying to do is apply science and objective data to take on some of the complex problems that face police departments and that face communities. We’ve talked about bail reform in the past and that was something that I think we already done successfully in that context, through the judiciary. But I think it’s a model that can be applied across the spectrum of criminal justice of intel and security.

Hill: Now, you were instrumental in the state implementing bail reform in the Garden State. How is New Jersey doing? You’re no longer with the Attorney General’s Office, you don’t have those kind of restrictions. How’s it doing?

Honig: I won’t change my talking point at all, even now that I’m completely free to speak at will. It’s been a huge success. I will not say it’s been easy because it has not been easy, I will not say it’s been perfect. But we are now a year and a half in, the new system started Jan. 1, 2017 and the data I think is unequivocal, it’s clear. In the first year of operation, Jan 1 to Dec. 31, 2017, our violent crime rate in this state went down by over 5 percent. At the same time, our county jail incarceration rate, pretrial, people who’ve not yet been tried, or convicted or pled guilty, went down 20 percent. And to have both of those things happening at the same time is remarkable, and I think it’s undeniable as to the overarching success of bail reform thus far.

Hill: But Elie, some unintended consequences?

Honig: Sure. There are always unintended consequences. There are critics out there who claim people are being released too easily. They use the catchphrase, ‘catch and release,’ and have tried to sort of catch onto sensationalistic individual cases. But, the question is not is the system perfect. There’s no such thing as a perfect bail system. There never has been and never will be one. The question is, is it better than the old system? Absolutely. And is it doing its job effectively. But, when you compare our new system to our old system, under the old system judges were not even permitted by law to consider the dangerousness of a defendant. We had to change that law and we had to amend our constitution. Now, judges are permitted to consider danger. The same time, we no longer have indigent, low-risk people locked up for month, and months and months waiting trial.

Hill: The bail bonds industry is almost nonexistent as a result of bail reform in New Jersey and they’re not happy about this. What are they doing about it, as far as you can detect?

Honig: Well, they certainly fought the New Jersey effort with everything they had. They brought lawsuits against us, they hired extremely expensive private attorneys, and so far we, the state, have prevailed in all of those lawsuits. They’ve tried PR, publicity, they’ve tried online intimidation. I’ve gotten borderline intimidating messages through my public social media accounts, and they’ve tried scare tactics. They’ve been looking for their Willy Horton. They were hoping, I think in their heart of hearts, that someone would be released and commit a horrific act here in New Jersey that would turn the political tide.

Hill: Which also happened under the old system.

Honig: Absolutely. For every example of the former, I’m sure there are dozens of examples of that happening under the old system, where people posted bail, money bail, through a bondsman and then committed murder or horrible acts.

Hill: Are other states now looking at New Jerseyans and saying, this is a model? We’ve had enough time to look at this and say, ‘New Jersey’s a good model.’

Honig: Yes, and that’s the good news. I think the battle is largely over here in New Jersey. I think it’s here to stay. I don’t think bail reform is going to be struck down or repealed. Many other states are interested in this, New York being one of them. In his State of the State Address a few months ago, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said we are going to go down this road of criminal justice reform. We’ve had inquires from, California has legislation pending, Massachusetts. I got a call one of my last days in the AG’s Office, a cold call from Hawaii’s AG’s Office. And I think it’s important that the lessons of New Jersey, the success story of New Jersey, be told, because the bail industry is trying to build a firewall around this state. They understand the battle’s lost here in New Jersey for the bail bonds people. What they don’t want is other states seeing the success that we’ve had and emulating it.

Hill: Now you mentioned there have been lawsuits. There was just a recent state Supreme Court ruling on this issue. What did it say about judges and what does it mean?

Honig: I think that ruling was perfectly reasonable and not unexpected. Essentially what the Supreme Court said is the risk assessment tool, we call it the PSA, which was developed by NYU, is not determinative. In other words, judges still need to use their individual discretion for each individual defendant, and I have no problem with that. It’s one of the things I’ve said all along. The risk assessment tool is just that; it’s a tool. It is not the be all end all and everyone still has to do their jobs. Prosecutors still have to argue if someone’s a risk, defense lawyers still should argue if someone should be let out, and judges have to use their independent discretion and make a decision case by case.

Hill: And you’ve seen them doing that case by case?

Honig: Absolutely. The risk assessment is always going to be an important guide post, but absolutely, judges have not surrendered their independence, nor should they.

Hill: Other states are going down this road, what’s your advice to them?

Honig: It works, and it’s worth it.

Hill: It works, and it’s worth it.

Honig: Absolutely.

Hill: Anything they should avoid?

Honig: No. I mean they have to stand tough. There’s going to be intimation, there’s going to be a fight put up by the bail bonds industry, but the results will be there and you will have a better and more just system as a result.