Letting dangerous people out on bail: Worst budget solution ever | Editorial

on November 17, 2016

Real estate heir Robert Durst, a murder suspect and stalker, repeatedly sprung himself from jail by posting bail -- once as much as $250,000.

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Creepy, "I killed them all" Robert Durst, the subject of the HBO crime documentary "The Jinx," was for years a walking example of what's wrong with our pretrial justice system.
 
A potential psychopath, longtime murder suspect and multimillionaire who stalked and threatened to kill his own brother can just post a $5,000 bond and walk out of jail. Then, days later, you might recognize him, sitting across from you on the subway.
 
This is one of the main reasons New Jersey voters changed our state constitution two years ago, to institute bail reform: So defendants are released from jail based on an evaluation of their risk to the public, not just a cash bail system that lets the wealthy go free.

Yet suddenly, just before the new rules are set to take effect Jan. 1st, lawmakers are proposing a last-minute change they say will save the state some money. And it might – by letting potentially dangerous people buy their freedom.
 
Here's how bail reform was supposed to work: We'd immediately release anyone accused of a petty crime, without holding them on bail. We'd do risk assessments on everyone else within 48 hours. Then we'd hold the most dangerous people before trial, and release the rest with various levels of pretrial monitoring.
 
But this new proposal would hold only the very worst offenders, the accused murders and rapists, behind bars pretrial. Everyone else – even those accused of domestic violence or aggravated assault – would have the option to buy their freedom before any risk assessment can be done, and have no supervision pending trial.
 
We'd allow a rich guy who may have tried to kill someone, but did not succeed, just pay his way out, like Durst did. Sound like a good idea to you?
 
Think of the injustice, too. While a dangerous stalker goes free, a poor person accused of a non-violent crime like theft who can't afford bail would still be forced to wait up to 48 hours behind bars for a risk assessment. We'd have two parallel systems, one for the poor, and another for the rich. How do you justify that?
 
It's certain to be challenged as unconstitutional. Yet this proposal was overwhelmingly advanced by the Assembly judiciary committee on Monday – perhaps a testament to the bail industry's lobbying power. It has yet to receive a hearing in the Senate. Stephen Sweeney, the Senate President, says it's not "going to happen."
 
Let's hope not. This is a horrendous place to cut costs. The main Assembly sponsor, John McKeon (D-Essex), says the state would save money because wealthier defendants wouldn't have to go through the risk assessment, be detained for safety or flight reasons or released with monitoring, and wouldn't fall under a new protection that requires them to have a speedy trial.
 
Think about that. Pretrial monitoring and detention are supposed to protect the public's safety. This is not a place where we want to scrimp.
 
McKeon does have reason to be concerned about the cost of bail reform. Estimates vary widely. Our court system says the overhaul is funded through 2018, and will cost about $22 million annually, raised from court fees. McKeon argues that's an underestimate, based on what some counties say it's costing them to hire more staff to provide speedier trials.
 
Reform advocates, on the other hand, point out that Kentucky performs twice as many risk assessments as New Jersey plans to do, because it includes those who commit petty crimes, too. And it does it all – including pretrial monitoring – for less than $14 million a year.
 
So bail reform may be underfunded, or it may not. We certainly need to find more funding in the future. And it really should be part of the general budget. But the answer is not to allow people out of jail who are dangerous. If we have to make cuts, now or in the future, do it elsewhere.

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