NJ bail reform working as expected — including running low on funds
TRENTON — The state judiciary says the bail reform initiative is working almost exactly as intended: most defendants released without bail, little difference in the number who fail to appear in court and no spike in crime. Its dedicated funding is also running out, as anticipated.
Bail reform is funded entirely through dedicated filing fees that total between $20 million and $21 million a year. The costs for the program are approaching $37 million a year. The fees began before the program did, which built a surplus that will be drained by the middle of 2020.
“Contrary to the report about the program going broke, the program is not going broke,” Judge Glenn Grant, the acting administrative director of the court, told the Assembly Budget Committee Wednesday. “What is happening is we have insufficient money in that allocation to cover the cost of the program.”
“Without a change in that funding stream, we will be required to engage in other cost-cutting measures to meet that balance,” he said. “That is not fair. That is not what we have asked for in terms of any other governmental operation.”
Grant said the filing fees should go into the state’s general fund and the program funded from there, rather than through a separate, dedicated account. He said the judiciary has talked about its concern with the Treasury Department but hasn’t gotten an answer.
“By the end of the next (fiscal) year, there will be an actual deficit, which will require either to put into the fund or the judiciary will be placed in the obligation of taking money or engaging in other budget cutting costs from other funds to make that balanced,” Grant said.
Assemblywoman Eliana Pintor Marin, D-Essex, the Assembly Budget Committee chairwoman, said Grant has been warning about the same looming problem for three years or more.
“I’m glad that you reiterated the issue and that it’s really just a funding mechanism issue and not about the program and its inefficiencies,” Pintor Marin said.
“Clearly it has to come from somewhere,” said Assemblyman John Burzichelli, D-Gloucester. “We’re not going to go out of this business.”
Compounding the challenge is that 39 of the state’s 482 authorized judge and justice positions are currently vacant, with another 12 vacancies anticipated by the end of 2019. The number of vacancies, which had peaked at 54 in 2015, was slashed to around a dozen a little over a year ago.
Grant said only one new Superior Court judge has been confirmed since Gov. Phil Murphy took office. That doesn’t include many reconfirmations of sitting judges.
In 2017, the Legislature created 20 new judgeships to help implement criminal justice reform, but the roster of judges isn’t any bigger.
“Ideally for the day-to-day work of these assignment judges, the ability to have as full a contingency as you can makes a huge difference,” Grant said.
Assignment judges told the lawmakers the vacancies have led to delays in civil courts.
“We have to give our priority because there are constitutional and statutory requirements under” criminal justice reform, said Assignment Judge Peter Bariso of the Hudson vicinage. “So when we have vacancies, yes, our first line is criminal. Our next line is family. And unfortunately, civil always is taking up the rear, so to speak.”