Lessons from the Field: New Jersey


Earlier this month, PJI released an edited interview with Roseanne Scotti, New Jersey state director of the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) and one of the leaders of the successful effort to pass sweeping pretrial legislation in 2014. Improving Pretrial Justice in New Jersey offers a candid assessment of the challenges the New Jersey coalition faced and the elements that led to their success.

These include

  • the importance of forming a broad-based coalition of support in the early stages of improvement efforts,
  • listening closely to the concerns and fears of stakeholders and communities, and
  • being ready for the influential and well-financed opposition from the bail industry.

All are useful lessons for other states and localities pursuing similar, much-needed changes.

Since the new laws went into effect in January,

  • New Jersey courts have been using validated risk assessment to guide pretrial decisions,
  • the use of money bail has been severely curtailed,
  • an infrastructure has been established for providing community supervision in appropriate cases, and
  • preventive detention with transparent due process is available for the small number of people who pose an unmanageable risk of failing to appear in court or committing crime while released.

In recent testimony before the state senate, the acting administrator of the courts, Judge Glenn A. Grant, praised the first few months of implementation, saying, “[W]hen you consider that we have replaced a system that stood for more than 70 years, the transition has been remarkably smooth.”

As of March 31, more than 10,000 defendants had been processed under the new system. Of those, only 8 were assigned money bail and 1,262 (12.4%) were preventively detained based an assessment of their risk, their charges, and other factors. At the end of February, the state’s jail population was down 30 percent from a year earlier.

These results reflect a safer, fairer system where potentially dangerous individuals cannot buy their freedom and lower-risk poor and working class people are not jailed for a lack of money. As might be expected however, the for-profit bail industry is doing all it can to undermine this progress with fear-mongering and behind-the-scenes lobbying. Roseanne, DPA, and the coalition continue to be active in monitoring implementation and repelling these attacks.

On June 2, Roseanne will be discussing New Jersey’s experience on the University of Pretrial’s First Friday Forum. Register here to participate.

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