In the United States, individuals charged with crimes have the right to a fair and speedy trial. Unfortunately, fast and speedy trials are becoming increasingly difficult to accomplish in modern times. For this reason, individuals frequently wait for a month or more to argue their case in court. During this time, some individuals are free to continue living their lives while others are incarcerated until they are found innocent. Bail hearings often determine the fate for those arrested for various crimes. New Jersey is in a unique position of attempting to change the traditional bail system and replace it with a more technical and accurate way of gauging whether an individual should remain in jail until their court date.
Traditional Bail Hearings
When you’ve been arrested for a crime, you are typically taken straight to jail. Within a few days, a judge will preside over your bail hearing to determine an appropriate amount of money required for your release. Those arrested in New Jersey will sometimes be released solely based on a signed promise to return back to court. Judges will release individuals on their own recognizance when they are unlikely to flee, have strong ties to the community or present other factors to the judge that convince them to let you out of jail.
More often, the judge will require individuals to pay a fee to be released. Judges typically utilize bail schedules as a general guideline in determining the bail amount. Bail schedules usually set a bail amount based on the severity of the offense committed. Judges are also free to use their own discretion when assessing an individual’s likelihood of appearing for their future court date. They will typically use factors like your criminal record, reputation within the community, familial and social ties, employment status and financial situation to judge your reliability.
Once bail is posted, you’ll have to pay the court ordered amount to be released from jail or await your court date in jail. Cash bail means that you or a loved one will need to pay the full cash amount of bail in order to be released. A “cash with a 10%” bail amount will only require the payee to post 10 percent of the cash bail, but the payee will be liable for the full cash amount if the individual never attends their court date. Some individuals may consider hiring a bail bondsman to pay their bail fees, but bail bondsmen can cost you more in the long run. If you are able to pay bail, then it’s best to do so upfront.
Concerns with Traditional Bail
While this bail system has been in place for decades, lawmakers and advocacy groups have largely argued that the system creates a bias against those unable to post bail. Senators such as Rand Paul claim that our traditional bail system creates a two-tiered justice system. The wealthy are able to purchase their way to freedom, and the financially unstable are forced to remain in jail until their court date. The New Jersey Drug Policy Alliance published one study in 2013 that indicated over 75 percent of New Jersey’s jail population was awaiting trial at any given moment. Around 40 percent of these imprisoned individuals were jailed simply because they couldn’t afford bail amounts totaling $2,500 or less.
Being imprisoned severely limits an individual’s ability to defend themselves against any charges, and it shifts all power from the individual to the state. Imprisonment prevents individuals from being able to generate income, often limits future employment opportunities and cuts off contact with important social support groups. Research consistently proves that individuals who can’t make bail are more likely to plead guilty.
New Jersey’s New Algorithm Bail System
In an effort to correct the blatantly biased bail system, New Jersey has become the first state to roll out a new algorithm-based bail system statewide. Governor Chris Christie signed the Bail Reform and Speedy Trial Act in an effort to completely eliminate bail. This algorithmic tool predicts an individual’s likelihood of re-offending or failing to appear at their court date. This tool utilizes millions of statistics from around the nation to make an assessment on each individual. The algorithm is named the Public Safety Assessment. Between January 1 and May 31, New Jersey’s jail population has decreased 19 percent. During this time, only eight individuals were held on bail.
How Does the Algorithm Work?
The Public Safety Assessment tool was designed by the Arnold Foundation. The creators analyzed over 1.5 million pre-trial records to make their risk assessments as gender and race neutral as possible. The algorithm does not consider factors like income, employment or education. The algorithm focuses on specific factors like the individual’s age, pending charges, prior misdemeanors and felony convictions, whether convictions were violent, whether the current offense is violent, prior failures to appear in court and previous incarceration sentences. Using these factors, the algorithm generates a score. This score is meant to help create a baseline for courts, but the judge always has the authority to make the final decision.
Opponents of this newer system argue that the Public Safety Assessment algorithm may be biased. ProPublica investigated one tool, Compas, and discovered a shocking trend. The Compas algorithm helps with sentencing decisions, yet it overwhelmingly rated black individuals as higher risk than their white peers. Additionally, the Public Safety Assessment takes a neutral stand on gun possession because of the country’s overall lenient stance on gun regulations.
While New Jersey’s new algorithm scores are not perfect, a growing number of experts agree that the traditional bail system is in desperate need of reform. Ideally, these scores will help judges make more accurate decisions about an individual’s likelihood of appearing at their court date. Time will show whether the Bail Reform and Speedy Trial Act creates more of a balance in the way justice is served throughout New Jersey.