In addition to casting votes for congressional candidates in the midterm elections on Tuesday, New Jersey voters will be confronted with a public question to amend the state constitution’s bail requirement.
The ballot question specifically asks voters whether they approve of a measure that would allow courts to order the pre-trial detention of defendants.
This addresses the implementation of a bail reform measure,an act passed by the state legislature and signed into law by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in August.
Currently, the New Jersey State Constitution requires every defendant be granted bail in non-capital crimes, so this proposed change must be brought directly to the citizens of New Jersey via a legislatively-referred constitutional amendmentin order to implement the reforms.
If the ballot question is approved, it will also bring about other legislative changes related to the bail process.
The act has three other major stipulations to reform the pre-trial process in New Jersey, including the declaration and establishment of non-monetary pre-trial release alternatives for defendants, the establishment of a pre-trial agency to supervise low-risk and released defendants pending trial and the requirement of validated risk assessment tools when evaluating individual defendants for release.
Non-monetary pre-trial release alternatives include periodic check-ins, reminder of court date and drug testing if applicable, among other measures.
The act represents a major overhaul of pre-trial requirements for defendants and has been lauded as an effort to promote equality in the justice system by non-partisan groups such as the Drug Policy Alliance, the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
"New Jersey is once again leading by example and showing how it’s possible to bring about real bipartisan action,” Christie saidfollowing the legislation’s passage, according to NJ Advance Media.
Christie is an ex officio member of the University's board of trustees.
Roseanne Scotti of the Drug Policy Alliance said that there are two aspects to the reform when viewed in totality — one addressing public safety concerns and another attempting to ensure greater equality in the justice system.
Christie and other supporters are focusing more on the public safety aspect, while the Drug Policy Alliance is more concerned with the impact the law will have on low-income defendants, she said.
“By moving away from financial conditions, thousands of low-income individuals who get arrested won’t be stuck in jail," Scotti said. "What this is is comprehensive bail reform.”
However, the phrasing of the ballot question could potentially produce biased results if voters do not understand the larger frame of reforms that lie behind the amendment, Scotti said.
“The wording of the ballot question is one of the challenges that we and our allies have faced, because the ballot question itself only relates to the issue of pre-trial detention," she said. "I think certainly a chance that people won’t understand, just based on the language of the ballot question, what all is involved in this reform."
Assemblywoman Donna Simon, who is asponsor of the bail reform measure, said that she cannot speculate on how the public will react to the public question, but noted that if the question is approved and the amendment made, New Jersey law will come in line with federal regulations and standards in many other states.
Though the bill has been praised as a bipartisan effort, not all groups are in favor of the reforms.
For example, the New Jersey Black Caucus has spoken out against the bail reform measure as a potential threat to civil rights guarantees.
Amending the state constitution to remove the bail guarantee without defining the protection to a speedy trial may leave defendants at the mercy of a judge’s discretion, argued State Senator Ronald Rice.
The implementation of the act, such as the creation of a pre-trial agency, is also estimated to cost the state $100 million, money that the state does not have, but would need to ensure the program is properly administered and does not infringe upon the civil rights of citizens, he added.
The timing of the legislation is aimed toward gaining political capital, Rice said, noting that much of the act will not be in effect until 2017 and that legislators had additional time to work on the bill that they chose not to take.
“There is a whole other agenda here,"Rice said. “It is feel-good legislation by way of deception.”
On the other hand, Simon noted that the purpose of the bill is not to violate the civil rights of the individual, but prevent re-offending in the pre-trial period.
Rice counters that he and the New Jersey Black Caucus are not opposed to the intent of the bill, but the dangers it poses to individual rights in practice.
In order for the amendment to take effect, it must be approved by a majority of the voting population.