Law & Justice

Bench Strength: Bateman Plan to Appoint 20 New Judges in NJ Advances

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TRENTON, NJ - The Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee has approved a bi-partisan plan authored by Democrat Senate President Steve Sweeney and Senator Kip Bateman (R-Somerset, Middlesex, Mercer, Hunterdon) that would add 20 new judges to New Jersey’s courts, providing the support for the already-enacted criminal justice reforms that will take effect in January.

Starting in 2017, the state will shift from a system that relies principally on setting monetary bail as a condition of release to a risk-based system that is more objective, is fairer to defendants because it is unrelated to their ability to pay monetary bail and safer for the public because dangerous offenders can be denied bail, according to the sponsors.

“The state has made a lot of progress in filling judicial vacancies that enable the courts to administer justice and enforce the law,” Bateman said. “These new judges will make the system better and provide the support needed to ensure the effectiveness of the bail reforms.”

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“The criminal justice reforms will help make the state’s judicial system fairer and more effective with standards based on public safety rather than the ability to pay,” Sweeney added. “People shouldn’t be kept behind bars for non-violent offences just because they can’t afford to post bail. The reforms already approved by the voters will allow the courts to keep dangerous defendants behind bars if they pose a threat to the community at the same time those who don’t pose a threat are released on court-supervised conditions.”

The reform includes new pretrial release and detention proceedings and speedy trial rights, all with the goal of keeping dangerously-violent offenders behind bars while allowing non-violent defendants who don’t pose a risk to be released on conditions other than their ability to pay bail.

The bill would appropriate $9.3 million to the state’s judiciary from the general fund, starting in the next fiscal year. New Jersey’s Superior Court currently consists of 443 judges. This bill would increase the number to 463. The new judges would be assigned by the chief justice of the Supreme Court.

In 2014, the Legislature approved and the Governor signed legislation that transformed New Jersey’s pretrial system by basing pretrial release decisions on risk rather than resources. Instead of giving individuals a set money bail amount, the new law provides for a range of non-financial release decisions for low-risk individuals and will allow truly dangerous individuals to be detained pending trial with speedy trial protections.

Voters overwhelmingly approved this new, fairer and more effective decision in a ballot referendum in November 2014.

Pilot reform programs in three court vicinages, Camden, Morris/Sussex and Passaic, are proving successful, court officials say.

“Court reforms and speedy trial reform represent a historic shift in the way our courts administer justice,” said Judge Glenn A. Grant, acting administrative director of the courts. “We support the idea of additional judges to assist in helping the criminal justice system to meet the time constraints of the speedy trial initiative.”

Sweeney said any attempts to “backtrack” on progress would be counterproductive.

A study by Luminosity in partnership with the Drug Policy Alliance of New Jersey found that in the recent past, nearly 75 percent of the individuals in New Jersey jails are there awaiting trial rather than serving a sentence; nearly 40 percent of the total population is there solely because they cannot afford to pay bail; nearly 75 percent of the pretrial jail population is African American or Latino; and the average length of incarceration for pretrial inmates is more than 10 months.

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