Law enforcement officials want bail reform ‘tweaks’

The four-month old law that reformed the state’s bail system had the approval of the three branches of New Jersey’s government, but local law enforcement officials aren’t sold on it – yet. A number of Northern New Jersey police officials say they aren’t against the reform, but are asking the state for some “tweaking,” specifically with the risk assessment or Public Safety Assessment portion of the reform, to avoid allowing serious or repeat offenders back on the street. Local police chiefs and the state’s Attorney General’s Office have criticized the Public Safety Assessment process, or PSA, saying it sends too many serious and at times repeat offenders, back to the streets rather than to jail.

Mahwah Police Chief James Batelli said he supports the notion of bail reform, but the risk assessment needs to be refined. He said his officers detained a man from North Carolina who was in possession of a machine gun, a handgun and had a “rap sheet 20 pages long.” Unfortunately the risk assessment, he said, does not take out-of-state convictions into account, leading to false low scores. The suspect was assessed and released pending a court date, Batelli said. “He was telling our officers that in North Carolina, he’d be in jail,” Batelli said. The new system relies on police officials and the courts to assess the likelihood that a defendant will flee, commit new criminal activity, or obstruct justice by intimidating victims and other witnesses using a point system.

The risk assessment system asks arresting officers to input the suspect’s data, including the crime, age, prior arrests, prior convictions, and other personal and background information for a score of 0 to 6. If the score is between 0 and 3, the suspect is issued a summons and a court date and released. Scores of 4 to 6 indicate possible incarceration, local law enforcement officials said. The high-scoring suspects move on to phase two, Decision Making Framework, where the courts determine whether the suspect should remain in jail or be released.

Paterson Police Director Jerry Speziale said his department is seeing the failures of the risk assessment firsthand. “The state,” he said, “needs to take a hard look at bail reform.” By returning violent criminals to the streets, the reform threatens all the recent gains his department has made, Speziale said.

Riverdale Police Chief Kevin Smith said he is the Morris County Police Chief Association’s point man in reviewing the new system. He has been compiling information from the county’s departments and will forward his findings to the State Police Chief’s Association. The hope, he said, is to speak as one voice to call attention to their concerns. “What we are finding is the risk assessment is not taking into account the use of weapons,” Smith said.

Smith and Butler Police Chief Ciro Chimento said they also want to see additional weight given to suspects who have been arrested multiple times. Both said they agree with the change in the bail reform policy, but more improvements are needed. “We are frustrated,” Chimento said, adding that while he doesn’t yet have hard data, he has seen an “elevated rate of recidivism.”

Pequannock Police Capt. Christopher DePuyt agreed with his colleagues, but also voiced a new concern. He questions the roles of local law enforcement officials when suspects don’t show up to their scheduled court dates. He said with the former monetary bail system, the defendant could pretty much be counted on to appear in front of the court as scheduled. Now there are no financial consequences. “Will this become the purview of local departments?” he asked.

Wayne Police Department spokesman Capt. Laurence Martin said current bail reform policies prevent less-serious offenders who cannot afford bail from being jailed, but the policies need to be “tweaked” to further take into account individual circumstance. He said input from law enforcement stakeholders, such as police, court personnel, advocacy agencies and lawyers, is needed. “I’d like to see the process take into account the municipal police departments and the impact it has on them,” he said, “because when you release recidivists they commit crimes.”

Mahwah’s Batelli said he understands and is not surprised that any changes to the risk assessment system will take time, but he worries nonetheless. “It is easy to criticize and it’s not quite as simple to fix it,” Batelli said, but added he fears that in the meantime some suspect will slip through the cracks and seriously hurt or kill someone.