Christie calls for action on bail reform; Assembly schedules Monday vote

TRENTON — New Jersey lawmakers heeded Gov. Chris Christie’s order to return to the Statehouse, and they listened to him argue for immediate action on bail reforms he said are long overdue.

But while the Senate voted to approve both reform measures pushed by the governor, leaders of the Assembly held off on voting until Monday.

“There are still certain concerns,” Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto, D-32nd of Secaucus, said Thursday before Christie’s speech.

The Assembly vote is scheduled for Monday at 11 a.m.

Christie had called for a rare special session expressly so the Assembly and Senate could both vote on the two-part bail reform package, and during his 20 minute speech he repeatedly called on them to do so immediately.

“It doesn’t seem possible that today we actually have a system where those who are at the greatest risk for having their lives thrown off course because they do not have the means or the options to make bail sit behind bars and those who pose the greatest danger and the greatest threat to our communities walk free,” the governor said.

“Do not let this moment pass. Act today, move forward, and get this done,” he said.

The proposed reform package includes a resolution to seek voter approval to change the state constitution to allow judges to withhold bail from defendants accused of violent crimes who are considered a high risk to commit more crimes or intimidate witnesses if released from jail.

The second part is separate legislation to create a pre-trial release program to allow certain suspects who aren’t considered dangerous and can’t afford bail to be released on non-monetary conditions or restrictions.

The latter bill would also increase court fees in order to raise revenue needed to implement the risk assessment and pre-trial monitoring.

Christie has pushed for the constitution change for two years and ordered the Legislature to convene for a special session Thursday to act on the resolution in advance of Tuesday’s deadline to place constitutional amendment questions on the November ballot.

For an amendment to be placed on the ballot, three-fifths of the Assembly and Senate must approve it.

“We need to give judges the ability to look at someone’s record and say enough is enough,” Christie said during the speech. He also spoke in favor of the additional reforms, arguing they would prevent defendants accused of non-violent crimes from being held in jail for extended periods because they are unable to afford bail.

“Folks don’t need to spend months and months in what amounts to a debtors prison,” he said. “This is not a fair and just system.”

Several social justice and minority organizations support the measures along with the New Jersey Bar Association and the ACLU, but some lawmakers have expressed concerns about how the changes will be implemented, particularly the costs.

The Office of Legislative Services has estimated increasing the court fees could raise about $42 million annually, about $13 million short of the $55 million in additional state expenses projected from the new programs.

Some Democrats have also pushed for the constitutional amendment to include set timelines for speedy trials for defendants held without bail. The timelines are part of the companion legislation but would not be written into the constitution.

The proposed changes would not go into effect until 2017, prompting some lawmakers to question why the constitutional amendment needed to be passed this year.

Supporters said the urgency to get the amendment passed this year is because the proposed changes will take two years to implement.

“If we don’t do it by Aug. 4, it’ll be 2018, not 2017,” Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-3rd of West Deptford, said, before predicting that the Assembly would meet Monday’s deadline.

“I think when the 4th comes around, both houses will have passed it,” he said.

Assembly Democrats spent about two hours in caucus Thursday before Christie’s speech, and Majority Leader Lou Greenwald said the conversations brought more “clarity” about the two measures.

He said the lingering concerns involved “questions around the constitutional amendment and the speedy trial component … how it’s going to be implemented and how much it’ll cost.”

Assemblyman Troy Singleton, D-7th of Palmyra, said he believed lawmakers now have a better understanding of the proposed reforms.

“The speaker was gracious in allowing all the members to discuss their concerns about the bill and we were also able to explain a lot of the issues so folks were able to have a better comfort level with it, so it’s my hope we’ll be able to have a vote on Monday.”

Assemblywoman Maria Rodriguez-Gregg, R-8th of Evesham, also spoke in favor the reform measures but said she wanted to see the final language of the bills.

“We have heard too many stories of violent offenders who commit heinous crimes while they are free on bail awaiting trial. The current system needs to be changed,” she said. “Some of the reforms recommended will not only benefit public safety, but also result in savings for taxpayers. Different versions of this bill are still under consideration. I look forward to reviewing the final draft we will be voting on Monday.”

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