Story by: Michael Symons
New Jersey’s bail reform program could be changed by the Legislature, though not as extensively as what’s being considered in neighboring New York, which is having a difficult time making changes akin to what the Garden State began three years ago.
The tweak under consideration at the Statehouse would presume that people charged with domestic violence by strangulation would be jailed until their trial. Advocates for the change say research shows people who are victims of such crimes are likely to killed in a subsequent crime.
Mary Houtsma, executive director of the Essex County Family Justice Center, said that although criminal justice reform doesn’t prevent such people from being held until trial now, a state Superior Court judge twice has been overturned for holding a defendant without bail on strangulation charges.
“Courts and law enforcement agencies in the state need the guidance and authority that this statute would provide to fulfill its promise to protect innocent and vulnerable citizens,” Houtsma said.
“Strangulation is a unique type of violence,” said state Sen. Linda Greenstein, D-Middlesex. “Even if it doesn’t result in death, the statistics show that it’s very likely to result in death the next time. And there always is a next time.”
Advocates for the criminal justice reforms want the Legislature to go slow.
Alexander Shalom, a senior supervising attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, wants lawmakers to give the courts and attorney general six months deal to assess how to change how the system handles strangulation cases, like was done for gun crimes a few months into 2017.
“One thing that we have done so well in New Jersey that is the envy of all other states is that we’ve let the system work,” Shalom said.
“We have the ability to keep narrowly tailoring those few defendants who are so dangerous they need to be detained without swallowing everyone,” he said.
Some senators criticized the ACLU for its position. State Sen. Joe Cryan, D-Union, said bail reform was meant to be adjusted as it goes along and that lawmakers shouldn’t abdicate their responsibility for that.
“Sounds to me like you want to data it out until there’s no data anymore and it just extends it, and I couldn’t disagree with you any more completely,” Cryan said.
Public Defender Joe Krakora said the courts are considering an assessment tool specific to domestic violence. He said the proposed law would presume that people accused of a third-degree crime would be detained while those accused of some first-degree crimes, like attempted murder, would not.
“To identify this particular crime creates a very anomalous system that’s very inconsistent on the face of it,” Krakora said.
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