NJ may add new 20 state judges to help with bail reform
Senate President Stephen Sweeney predicts quick approval of his proposal to add 20 judges to the state’s judiciary in order to help implement criminal-justice reforms taking effect in five weeks.
Sweeney, D-Gloucester, was joined by the judiciary’s administrative director and advocacy groups Monday to announcing the plan to add 20 judges to the current limit of 443 judges. He said doing so would cost $9.3 million; that includes money for support staffs and operating the courts.
They also rejected the idea of pulling back on the bail reforms, as pushed for at a recent Assembly committee hearing, where the bail-bonds industry and concerned lawmakers advocated for keeping the current cash-bail system in place on top of the new risk-based assessments being introduced.
“There’s been a discussion about going back to cash bail, and we’re not going to support that initiative in the Senate,” Sweeney said. “We will give it a chance. We haven’t even taken the training wheels off this yet.”
The bail reforms were approved by the Legislature and Gov. Chris Christie in 2014, then affirmed by voters in a constitutional amendment approved that same year.
“Look, there was a lot of people wanted this to fail. This was one hell of a fight, and you see people are already talking about cash bail before we even implement the plan,” Sweeney said. “We can’t let it fail, and we can’t be part of the reason why it fails by not making sure that we don’t provide enough judges, so that the speedy trial provision of this can happen.”
Appellate Judge Glenn Grant, the acting administrative director for the New Jersey courts, said he’s “very confident” bail assessments of all defendants will be conducted within two days, as required by bail reforms taking effect Jan. 1.
“I’m absolutely confident that we will be able to get a significant percentage of the individuals processed within 24 hours, much less meeting the 48-hour time frame of the statute,” Grant said.
Grant rejected concerns voiced at a legislative hearing two weeks ago that the state won’t be ready to successfully implement a new bail system, which ties decisions about releasing to a checklist of nine risk factors and reduces the reliance on requiring cash bail.
Critics of the system that’s being replaced say it has led to economic disparities, with thousands of people detained in county jails for up to a year waiting trial because they’re too poor to afford even nominal amounts of bail.
“Having more judges will help, and it will move us to a system that allows us to finally fulfill the promise of equal justice,” said Alexander Shalom, senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey.
“We know that cash-based pretrial systems do not work,” said Carlos Hendricks, a community activist with the Latino Action Network. “In these systems, people with money can buy their freedom while those without money – disproportionately poor and people of color – are left to rot in cages.”
Expanding the number of judges requires a change in state law. Sweeney hopes to get the law passed this month, but the new judges wouldn’t be in place until probably the end of March.
A full allotment of judges is never in place, anyway, but Sweeney said the population of judges should reach its highest level in eight years within a few weeks, even before the proposed expansion.
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