The new bail system that kicked in 23 months ago, lest anyone forget, had its critics. In particular, the powerful bail bond industry spent years spewing forecasts of civic mayhem, arousing fear that revolving doors in our jails would trigger a crime spike that will surely turn New Jersey into a giant Detroit.
The pathological attempt to inflame half-wits hardly matters now. We can affirm that because we have pooled the wisdom of advocates, voters, a Republican governor and Democratic lawmakers, and transformed our state into a model of justice reform for the entire nation.
All you have to do is consult the numbers, which you may have heard on WNYC last week: Since cash bail was almost entirely eliminated in January 2017, New Jersey's crime rates have plummeted across the board.
State Police statistics show that compared to 2016 data (January to September), homicides are down 32 percent in the same period for 2018. Rape (down 13), robbery (down 37), assault (down 18) and burglary (down 30) have also plunged. Overall, violent crime is down more than 30 percent.
Not exactly Armageddon.
That doesn't mean that the new bail system is directly responsible for crime reduction, but for it to happen at the same time courts have all but stopped setting cash bail - cutting our pretrial jail population drastically -- speaks to the overarching success of reform.
Remember, we got here because New Jerseyans said it was time to stop criminalizing poverty. In 2014, voters approved an amendment that gave judges the power to detain anyone without bail if they pose a threat or flight risk; before the amendment, almost everyone with money could be released on bail. Then the Legislature passed a bill, signed by Gov. Christie, to abolish cash bail for most nonviolent defendants and create a system that would monitor them.
It has worked brilliantly, because judges still can use their discretion to overrule a risk assessment based on a computer algorithm. The drug kingpins, in other words, can't buy their freedom. The rest, meanwhile, can get on with their lives without regard to the size of their wallets.
"These stats show that mass incarceration is a self-defeating strategy. It destroys lives, tears apart communities - mostly communities of color - doesn't reduce crime, and costs taxpayers millions," says Roseanne Scotti of Drug Policy Alliance, who initiated the reform effort in 2012. "At the same time, New Jersey has reduced its pretrial jail population by almost 40 percent over the last two years."
Just 13 months ago, the Pretrial Justice Institute gave our state its only 'A' grade, referring to New Jersey as "phenomenal" in its official summary.
PJI's CEO, Cherise Fanno Burdeen, now says the latest stats "demonstrate it's possible to safely repair longstanding inequities and restore fairness to our pretrial justice system. New Jersey should be proud that its lawmakers rose above baseless, fear-inducing rhetoric about pretrial reform in order to set an example for the country."
They probably recognize the folly of giving indigent defendants three bad choices: Stay in jail for months, which may lead to horrendous collateral consequences, such as the loss of a job, home or family; take on crippling debt to pay a bail bondsman a non-refundable sum; or plead guilty just to get home sooner.
And they recognize that the divergence of justice for the rich and poor is as stark today as it was in 1964, when Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy called the bail system "a vehicle for systemic injustice."
But not in New Jersey. Not anymore. And this will inspire other states to follow our example.