SOUTH PLAINFIELD, NJ – In just six short months, the ramifications of New Jersey’s revised bail reform act are being felt in communities throughout the state, including here in South Plainfield. According to borough law enforcement officials, the amended act, which went into effect Jan 1, 2017, is ‘extremely flawed.’

“There’s no longer any accountability and that is probably the biggest issue right now. The problems range from one end of the spectrum to the other,” said South Plainfield Police Detective Joe Indano, adding that on a scale of 1 to 10 – with 10 being the worst – bail reform on a local level has been an 11.

“In South Plainfield alone, we have seen repeat offenders arrested, get out and strike again because there is no accountability whatsoever,” he said.

In November 2014, 61-percent of voters approved the Bail Reform and Speedy Trial Act, a state Constitutional amendment ‘authorizing the legislature to pass laws concerning pretrial release and pretrial detention,’ and allowing the court to ‘order a person remain in jail prior to trial…’

Advocates of the amended act feel the revised act protects those accused of minor, nonviolent crimes and prevents them from languishing in jail because they cannot raise bail money. They also feel the act now prevents dangerous criminals from paying their way out. Those opposed, however, feel New Jersey voters were mislead into voting for the reform law under the ‘guise of keeping dangerous offenders locked up with no bail.’

“In reality, this is a back door to let offenders walk free with a promise to appear in court to save money,” a New Jersey correction’s officer who wished to remain anonymous told TAPinto South Plainfield earlier this year. “It’s a threat to the safety and security of every community in this state.”

Indano agrees. “There were good intentions, but the way the ballot question was posed in 2014 was unclear. Basically the question asked ‘do you agree that violent offenders should be remanded and non-violent should be released?’ and I think everyone would agree with that but, in practice, that is not how it is working,” he said.

At a June 5 meeting, Mayor Matt Anesh and the South Plainfield Borough Council unanimously passed a resolution ‘urging the state senate and assembly enact legislation to repel’ [the act] and all companion laws and further request’ it be signed by the governor.

“Clearly, bail reform, in its current form, is not working,” said Anesh, noting that in just six short months the issue has received a fair amount of press and raised a great deal of concern. “There were flaws with the old system and clearly there are flaws to this system. The question is what can be done to fix it.”

A copy of the borough resolution was sent to New Jersey State leaders, including Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney, Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto, Governor Chris Christie, and the League of Municipalities along with representatives of the 18th L.D., including Senator Patrick J. Diegnan, Jr., and Assemblymembers Robert J. Karabinchak and Nancy J. Pinkin.

According to Councilwoman Christine Faustini, South Plainfield officials, including herself, Anesh, and Police Chief James Parker are hoping they can sit down and discuss their concerns with state leaders. They also would like Middlesex County First Assistant Prosecutor Christopher Kuberiet, a South Plainfield resident himself, to attend the meeting.

 “It’s certainly a problem and it can’t be ignored,” said Faustini. “As a council, we need to do whatever we can to push for adjustments to make the law work better.”

Diegnan, a lifelong resident of the borough, told TAPinto that if someone from the borough or police department reaches out to set up a face-to-face he would be more than willing to meet. “This is something everyone should be on the same page about,” said Diegnan. 

Comparing the Then and Now of Bail Reform

“Bail reform was a bi-partisan legislative initiative, encouraged by our Republican governor and supported by both Democrats and Republicans alike,” said Diegnan, who at the time the amended law was proposed and placed on the ballot was a member of the Assembly; both he and Pinkin voted in a favor of the changes to New Jersey’s criminal justice system, which went into effect Jan. 1, 2017.

Under the amended act, pretrial hearings in the State of New Jersey must now take place within 48 hours of an arrest with law enforcement required to have all reports, evidence, and statements entered and submitted in this timeframe; prior, hearings could be held up to five days after an arrest.

“Forty-eight hours is the new standard and it’s ridiculous, unrealistic, and, in many cases impossible. Our entire 10-hour day is now consumed with preparing for this pretrial hearing and, as a result, we are rushing, could miss something, and don’t have the ability to be as thorough,” Indano said.

“My biggest problem with the implementation of this is that they – the attorney general, the judiciary – had no boots on the ground at a local level to see how it would impact local police departments,” he continued. “No one looked into how long it generally takes to process a prisoner or how long it takes to conduct an investigation. They just came up with a blanket ’48-hours and we need all your reports.’ It’s just impossible.”

Along with the shortened timeframe, the reform act also features changes in how the decision to release or detain someone is made. “The premise was that one shouldn’t remain in jail simply because they cannot afford bail,” said Diegnan.

Under the amended act, the state moved away from cash bail and, in its place, opted for an arrangement process through which judges determine whether a defendant is detained or released based on risk assessment. Judges now rely on a Public Safety Assessment (PSA) – a computer-generated algorithm through which factors such as prior convictions, danger to others, missed court dates, flight risk, etc. – are used to determine one’s fate.

For example, a repeat offender shoplifter who has been arrested three time could have a higher PSA score than someone who commits a violent offense, such as murder, for the first time; as a result, the shoplifter would most likely be detained while the first time offender is released.

While some crimes obviously carry more weight than others, regardless of one’s PSA, Indano said the change takes away an experienced judge’s ability to look at the totality of a situation and use their discretion.

“In the past, a defendant remained in jail until the required bail amount was satisfied. Now, it is not even presumed [a case] will go on a warrant. Everything – whether someone is going to be detained or released – hinges on the mathematical score [the court] comes up with,” he said. “The courts are using a mathematical score to try and predict human behavior, which you just cannot do.”

According to Diegnan, bail reform, like any law put into place, ‘is a work in progress’ with tweaks being made to ensure justice and public safety.

“Often, as with any legislation, until it is put in place we don’t know what, if any, problems there are going to be,” said the senator. “There is a good faith effort between the judiciary and New Jersey prosecutors in all our counties, along with the legislature. Everyone is open to suggestions and modifications as necessary.”

Diegnan also noted that over the past six months, revisions have already been made. “We do know that there have been some incidents where people were released when they should not have been,” he said. “It has been updated so that now if a crime involves a weapon, folks aren’t getting released as they were previously,” said Diegnan.

In Indano’s opinion, eliminating bail and releasing defendants on their own recognizance – regardless of the crime – with the expectation that they report to the court via phone each week and appear before a judge on a specific date, doesn’t make sense.

“Bail was a guarantee someone would show up in court and be accountable and, if they didn’t or if they committed other crimes, they would lose that money, there would be a warrant, and the person would be reprimanded back to jail,” Indano said. “By eliminating bail you are asking someone who is a criminal and who has already proven they do not care and that they aren’t responsible enough to live their life responsibly to, if released, be responsible and not commit other crimes. The whole thing is backfiring.”

Additionally, under the amended act, police throughout the state – as well as in South Plainfield – are stating that in many cases defendants not deemed a threat by their PSA score and therefore released, are going on to commit additional crimes. In South Plainfield alone, Indano said there have already been two cases in six short months in which two different alleged burglary suspects were arrested and released without bail only to go on to commit additional crimes. Also, in Cumberland County, a suspect released on gun charges went on to kill someone shortly after.

“We have definitely had more robberies than we have had in the past year or two. We are seeing the effects of this; there are brazen criminals who do not care and aren’t afraid and will keep committing these crimes because there aren’t any repercussions…” said Indano.

What Can Be Done?

In passing the borough resolution earlier this month and hopefully by meeting with elected state representatives such as the senator, South Plainfield leaders are hopeful they can be ‘advocates for change.’ Personally, Anesh said, he would like to the legislature establish a state commission to look into the act and how it can be changed or improved.

“We know that bail reform, as it is now, is not working. This is a pressing use and one that has clearly been receiving a lot of press and raised a lot of concerns in a short period of time. We have all heard the horror stories…there are definite issues that need to be looked at,” said the mayor, adding, “Our hope is the legislature does something – unlike other issues through which we have advocated for and gotten nowhere. Something has to be done [and] we hope the legislature will recognize that this isn’t a perfect system and seek improvements to it.”

One key change, said Anesh, would be taking a closer look at the PSA scoring system. “It doesn’t appear that the formula in place now to score individuals is working. The issue is actually how to rectify it,” he said. “A commission, based on what we know already, would look into how it is working, look at situations in which repeat crimes are happening upon release, and determine if we need to change how one’s PSA is scored or if the problem is bail reform in general.”

Faustini, who has family in law enforcement, added, “People who are dangerous or who are harming others are being released too quickly and going on to commit serious crimes again. This is a safety issue and it affects all our residents – both in the municipality and throughout the state. Something needs to be done to fix it.”

Indano, too, believes that the act, in its current form, needs to be revisited, revised, and put up on the ballot once again, the wordage much more specific and clear so that residents of New Jersey know exactly what they are voting for.

“If you are proponent of bail reform and you agreed with the reasons it was put into place – that non-violent offenders should be kept out and violent offenders should be kept in – then you really need to look at what is going on because it just the opposite,” Indano said, adding, “The way the law is now, there are people sitting in jail on minor offenses but, in the meantime, career criminals are getting out and crimes are continuing to happen over and over.”

“Nobody wants to put anyone’s life at risk,” said Diegnan, reinforcing his willingness to meet with local police and borough leaders. “If there are real concerns, we should all sit down and address them as needed. This is something everyone should be on the same page about.”