TRENTON – A measure sponsored by a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers that would allow voters to decide whether to give state judges discretion in determining if a person charged with a crime should be held without bail prior to trial was approved today by the Senate Law and Public Safety Committee.
Sponsored by Senators Donald Norcross, Kevin O’Toole and Richard J. Codey, the proposed Constitutional Amendment (SCR-107) would provide judges with the ability to prevent violent offenders from committing additional acts of violence by denying pretrial bail. The amendment would bring the state bail system in line with the federal structure.
“Offenders who commit heinous crimes and demonstrate that they are a continued threat to the public should not be released back into our communities to commit additional violent acts against our residents,” said Senator Norcross (D-Camden/Gloucester), chair of the Senate Law and Public Safety Committee. “Providing judges with the ability to use discretion in deciding whether to allow bail will ensure there is an effective system in place to protect residents from those who are considered the ‘worst of the worst’ criminals in society.”
A 2007 report by the US Department of Justice showed that 33 percent of individuals charged with a felony in the state courts studied committed one or more types of misconduct within a year of being released prior to the disposition of their case. Of those individuals, a bench warrant for failure to appear in court was issued for 23 percent. An estimated 17 percent were arrested for a new offense, 11 percent of those for a felony.
“Judges should be able to determine whether defendants are held without bail to protect the public and ensure defendants make timely appearances in court,” said Senator O’Toole (R-Bergen/Essex/Morris/Passaic), a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “This amendment applies to defendants who pose a great public safety risk or those with track records of disrupting the integrity of our criminal justice process.”
Under the proposed Constitutional Amendment, in order to deny pretrial release, a court would have to find that no amount of bail, pretrial release conditions or combination of bail and conditions would assure the defendant’s appearance for trial or the integrity of the court is maintained. A court could deny pretrial release to protect the safety of any person, such as a witness or victim, or the community.
“In too many cases, we have seen bail set so low that violent offenders were able to get back out on the streets to commit other brutal crimes. The execution-style shootings of four college students in a schoolyard in Essex County five years ago should never have happened,” said Senator Codey (D-Essex/Morris), who noted that a key defendant in the case was free on bail awaiting court proceedings on a child sex assault charge at the time of the shootings. “It’s high time the residents get the protection from predators that they need and this bill goes a long way toward doing that.”
The committee approved the measure by a vote of 5-0. The proposed Constitutional Amendment must lay on the desks of legislators for a period of 20 calendar days, and a public hearing must be held on the measure, prior to a vote by the full Senate. Any proposed constitutional amendment must receive a three-fifths vote in each house of the Legislature to be submitted to voters in November of the year it is proposed; if the measure receives a majority vote, but not a three-fifths vote, it may be submitted to the voters after a second majority vote the following year.