Free to kill? NJ bail reform can leave victims exposed
NEWARK — Tiffany Wilson was just 28-years-old when police say she was shot and killed by Kareem Dawson on Tuesday.
Critics of the current bail reform system told News 12 that if the person accused of shooting her was held under the old system on an outstanding assault charge, Wilson might still be alive today.
Dawson, who survived after shooting himself in the head after a police chase, is the father of Wilson's child, according to News 12, which said Wilson had a restraining order against Dawson at the time she was killed.
Dawson had been arrested twice on domestic violence charges and released both times pending trial, according to court records obtained by NJ.com.
"It was the system, in my opinion, that totally failed this young lady," domestic violence specialist Asia Smith was quoted as saying.
Nicole Morella, of the New Jersey Coalition to End Domestic Violence, told New Jersey 101.5 that the current system to determine whether a defendant is kept in custody or released does not consider several factors that are different from other violent criminals.
Morella said factors like whether they have shown signs of escalating violence, changes in behavior, and whether they have a history of weapon use should be considered.
She said it is important for the court to consider the victim's situation after the violence occurs, including whether they plan on trying to get out of the relationship. In some cases, whether a defendant is kept in custody or not can make the difference in whether the victim is able to get away safely, she said.
"If that person is out there and they're not being held accountable, unfortunately, we're going to continue to have cases that end like this," she said of the Newark case.
Morella said that while the bail reform changes have affected domestic violence across the state, the help they receive can vary depending on where they are. While more populated areas have more victims' resources, Morella said that help is harder to find in rural areas.
She said work by the Office of the Attorney General has helped to increase law enforcement's awareness about risk factors for domestic violence victims in recent years, but more work needs to be done to help in the courts.
"That information needs to be translated and adopted by the court itself in terms of whether to detain a defendant or release them," she said.
Morella said there need to be safeguards to protect victims and their families. She said in terms of bail reform, that could mean either an amended formula when looking at those charged with abuse or a totally new tool.
While the new bail reform laws are not perfect, Morella said there was a definite need for change.
"I think that philosophically we believe in bail reform and criminal justice reform. We do believe there should be more equality," she said. "I think that we're in a situation right now where the transition to this new system hasn't informed itself about domestic violence risk factors."
If there is good news for victims of domestic violence, Morella said it is that no matter where they are in the state there are ways to get help around the clock. Those looking for help call can call the statewide hotline at 1-800-572-SAFE or visit the coalition's website to find more tools at their disposal.
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