HACKENSACK, N.J. -- The population at the Bergen County Jail dropped by nearly 10% the first five months of this year -- and nearly 40% the past two years -- as a result of bail reform laws that have allowed more defendants to remain free before trial, statistics show.
Passaic County, like Bergen, saw a 10% decrease from Jan. 1 to May 31.
Of all defendants brought before judges in New Jersey between Jan. 1 and the end of May, 13% were ordered held, records show.
The rest were released with conditions or supervision, under New Jersey's Bail Reform And Speedy Trial Act.
Changes in procedure ordered by state Attorney General Christopher Porrino have increased the percentage of defendants held since the beginning of June, law enforcement authorities say.
"The count is starting to climb again," one of them told Daily Voice on Friday.
Civil libertarians say the reform has produced exactly what they'd hoped for.
"The decline in jail population shows jail beds are now being used more appropriately – only for those people who judges deem too high of a risk to the community before trial,” said Roseanne Scotti, director of the New Jersey Drug Policy Alliance.
“Under the old money bail system, dangerous defendants were able to buy their way out of jail while poor, lower-risk people were stuck behind bars simply because they couldn’t afford their freedom," Scotti said. "The reform corrected that glaring public safety loophole while making the system fairer.”
Law enforcement officers and prosecutors say it's flooded streets with repeat offenders.
They point to several cases -- including one earlier this week in which Glen Rock police arrested an ex-con during a traffic stop that they said turned up 31 bags of heroin, seven patches of fentanyl and four bags of cocaine.
James P. Desotto, 32, of Palisades Park already had convictions for aggravated assault with a baseball bat (2004) and robbery (2003) when he ducked out of court in 2013 before a judge could order mandatory drug testing.
He was later arrested by Palisades Park police outside a Secaucus Home Depot and charged with snatching a woman's purse on a borough street.
His father that same week reported that Desotto came to his house, demanded money and threatened to shoot him, police told Daily Voice at the time.
Palisades Park police arrested Desotto yet again this past April on burglary charges. A judge ordered him released from the Bergen County Jail five days later.
Desotto was free for only a couple of weeks when Lodi police arrested him on charges of assaulting and robbing someone. A judge ordered him released less than a week later, records show.
Desotto has other outstanding charges from Palisades Park for other alleged offenses -- among them, burglary, theft and harassment from last November and simple assault and obstruction from last July.
This time, he remained held in the county lockup as of Friday.
Daily Voice has reported several incidents involving such defendants since judges in New Jersey began using a "risk assessment tool" to determine whether defendants go free or remain jailed without bail based on the possibility that they:
- will skip court;
- pose a danger to the community;
- try to intimate witnesses or victims.
Other considerations include how old the offender is, whether the crime was violent, past convictions and other pending charges.
"High-risk" offenders are detained. The rest are released with conditions or supervision that police say many have ignored.
EXAMPLES cited by police of repeat offenders released under NJ's 2017 bail reform law: http://tinyurl.com/DAILYVOICENJBailReform
Of 822 defendants brought before state judges in Bergen County from Jan. 1 through May 31:
- 198 were released without bail without restrictions;
- 553 were released without bail with some form of monitoring or conditions;
- 52 were ordered held pending trial.
The rest were either awaiting resolution or had their cases disposed of through other measures.
Statewide, the decrease is nearly 20%, with Essex (36.7%), Salem (317%) and Camden (29.2%) counties leading the way.
Amid harsh criticism from police and prosecutors, state Attorney General Christopher Porrino last month changed how they can proceed to "better ensure that dangerous and recidivist criminals are detained pending trial."
Among other changes, he created "presumptions that prosecutors will seek an arrest warrant and/or pretrial detention for offenders charged with gun crimes, assaults on police, certain crimes involving sexual exploitation of children, or any indictable offense committed while on release or under post-conviction supervision for another crime."
Porrino also asked the state Administrative Office of the Courts to make changes that would make it more likely judges would impose detention in cases where a defendant is charged with a gun crime, eluding police in a vehicle with risk of death or injury, or any new crime committed while on pretrial release, probation or parole.
He was awaiting a response.
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