BY TOM HESTER SR.
Gov. Chris Christie Tuesday proposed a ballot referendum that would ask voters to approve a constitutional amendment that would allow judges to deny bail to accused violent criminals, especially those with a record of violence.
The governor describes the proposal as part of a common sense effort to enhance public safety by preventing violence before it occurs. The proposal parallels the federal bail system regarding violent criminals.
Christie initially proposed the change in his State of the State address in January.
“Keeping our residents and communities safe is the paramount role of government,” the governor said. “Revising our bail procedures and allowing judges to consider certain factors, such as the dangerousness of the offender to the community before being released back into society, is just a simple common sense reform that is long overdue in this state.”
The constitutional amendment voters would be asked to approve in November would establish an exception authorizing pretrial detention when a court finds that no amount of bail, pretrial release conditions or combination of bail and conditions would assure the accused criminal’s appearance, protect the safety of any person and of the community, or maintain the integrity of the criminal justice process.
The state Constitution presently calls for all accused persons to be eligible for bail except some accused murderers. It states, “All persons shall, before conviction, be bailable by sufficient sureties, except for capital offenses when the proof is evident or presumption great.”
The proposed referendum is the second Christie has proposed in the past few weeks. He also wants voters to decide if same-sex marriage should be legalized in New Jersey but the Democratic-controlled Legislature is refusing to move the necessary measure to create the referendum, saying civil rights issues should not be decided by popular vote. Instead, the Democrats are moving legislation to legalize gay marriage, a bill the governor has vowed to veto.
If the Democrats fail to provide Christie legislation to establish the no-bail referendum, the governor can charge they are soft on crime in next year’s gubernatorial election.
A 2007 study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that of pretrial releases:
- About one-third of released defendants were charged with one or more types of pretrial misconduct;
- Nearly one-fourth had a bench warrant issued for failing to appear in court; and
- About one-sixth were arrested for a new offense. More than half of these new arrests were for felonies
"New Jersey's law enforcement community applauds Governor Christie for his efforts to provide us with some of the same public safety tools that have been shown to work well in the federal criminal justice system," state Attorney General Jeffrey S. Chiesa said. "Under New Jersey's current Constitution, a judge is required to set bail for every defendant, without regard to the defendant's violent history. Our current bail system allows dangerous offenders back on the streets to threaten witnesses and intimidate whole neighborhoods while their cases are pending. The governor's proposal would amend the Constitution to authorize pretrial detention without bail when a judge finds it necessary to protect the community or the integrity of the criminal justice process."
If the amendment was approved by voters, the Legislature would be able to enact laws establishing procedures, terms and conditions applicable to pretrial release and detention.
In his State of the State address, Christie called for changes to amend New Jersey’s bail laws to allow judges to consider the factor of dangerousness to the state’s communities before a violent person is released back on to the streets, where they may maim or kill while they await trial.