A revamped bail system has made New Jersey’s criminal justice more humane and equitable, while substantially lowering the jail population by cutting the amount of time low-risk defendants spend behind bars while awaiting trial, according to a report by the Administrative Office of the Courts.

The Criminal Justice Reform 2018 Annual Report credits bail changes for ensuring only violent offenders were being held in jail pending trial and for helping to stabilize no-show and recidivism rates with defendants no more likely to commit a new offense or fail to show up for a court appearance than defendants released under the prior system of monetary bail.

The new system, which voters approved in a 2014 constitutional amendment, went into effect Jan. 1, 2017.

Chief Justice Stuart Rabner seized on the report’s findings and praised the removal of what he called  systemic “inequities” caused by monetary bail.

“New Jersey’s criminal justice system has begun to remove inequities created by the heavy reliance on monetary bail,” Rabner said in a statement. “The annual report reveals that Criminal Justice Reform has reduced the unnecessary detention of low-risk defendants, ensured community safety, upheld constitutional principles, and preserved the integrity of the criminal justice system.”

This evolved, said the report, as a result of bail reform where defendants who pose little risk of committing another crime or fleeing from justice but couldn’t afford bail, now spend substantially less time in jail before being released pretrial.

The report said time spent behind bars while awaiting trial is down 40 percent, while the use of money bail is now largely relegated to defendants who fail to appear in court or otherwise violate the conditions of pretrial release set by a judge.

The average amount of time defendants spent in jail pretrial in 2014 was 62.4 days; the average time dropped to 37.2 days in 2017, the AOC report said.

The report noted how New Jersey’s pretrial jail population has steadily declined since the end of 2015, when Superior and Municipal Courts across the state, along with prosecutors and defense counsel, began reviewing the local pretrial jail population in preparation for criminal justice reform efforts.

It said CJR reduced the disparity between black and white defendants in terms of the amount of time spent in jail from arrest until initial pretrial release, as well as the average number of days spent in jail awaiting trial.

The time in jail for black defendants was reduced by 10.3 days, and time in jail for white defendants was reduced by 5.2 days, the report said.

In total, New Jersey’s pretrial jail population has declined 43.9 percent from December 31, 2015 through the end of 2018.

“New Jersey’s jail population looks very different today than it did when the idea of reforming the state’s criminal justice system first took hold,” said Judge Glenn A. Grant, acting administrative director of the courts, in a statement. “The state’s jails now largely include those defendants who present a significant risk of flight or danger to the community.

“Low-risk defendants who lack the financial resources to post bail are now released back into the community without having to suffer the spiraling, life-changing consequences of being detained for weeks and months while presumed innocent,” Grant said.

The report’s statistical comparison between the new system implemented in 2017 and the monetary bail system still used in 2014 show recidivism and court appearance rates largely remained steady. It concluded that New Jersey’s jail population now consists largely of defendants accused of violent crimes or other serious offenses.

Highlights of the 2018 report included the following points:

  • A comparison of the jail population on Oct. 3, 2012, and Oct. 3, 2018, showed there were 6,000 fewer people incarcerated under the new bail system, and half of the decrease were among black defendants, followed by 1,500 fewer whites and 1,300 fewer Hispanic defendants.
  • In all of 2018, only 102 defendants were ordered by courts to post monetary bail, out of a total of 44,383 CJR-eligible defendants. Bail was ordered in 90 of those cases for violations of pretrial monitoring.
  • The report said the vast majority of defendants were either (a) released on their own recognizance or on conditions that Pretrial Services officers monitored, or (b) ordered detained.
  • Fingerprinting rates increased dramatically under CJR, from 30 percent of defendants in 2014, to more than 94 percent of defendants using “Live Scan” last year.
  • Under CJR, a substantially larger number of low-risk defendants were released on complaint-summonses, instead of being arrested on complaint-warrants—thanks in part to early screening by prosecutors.
  • The report found that In 2017, 71 percent of defendants were released on a summons, pending the disposition of their cases, without first being sent to jail. In 2014, 54 percent of defendants were released on a summons. Under CJR, the county jail population now consists of a larger percentage of high-risk defendants. On Oct. 3, 2018, 47 percent of the pretrial jail population consisted of people charged with at least one violent offense, compared to 35 percent on the same day in 2012.
  • Nearly 75 percent of the 2018 jail population consisted of defendants charged with serious offenses.

However, the report stated the racial and ethnic makeup within the jail population has remained largely the same.

Black defendants, for example, still account for 54 percent of the jail population—a number not lost on the judiciary, which plans to examine the effect of bail reform on racial disparity to ensure all defendants are treated equally, said the report, which cited racial disparity among the areas in need of improvement.