Pretrial Justice Reform

The New Jersey Criminal Justice Reform Act took effect January 1, 2017, essentially eliminating money bail in the state.

The new system begins with the assumption that innocent people should not be in jail. People can be held only if their release poses an unacceptable flight risk or poses a danger to their community.

The legislation sprang from a collaborative, non-partisan effort. A March 2013 New Jersey jail population analysis by the Drug Policy Alliance found that 1,547 people -- 12 percent of the entire jail population -- were held solely because they could not afford $2,500 or less in bail. About 800 of these people, all innocent-until-proven-guilty, couldn’t scrape together $500.

Advocates and officials -- including some who often find themselves on opposite sides of issues – came together to make the pretrial justice system fairer. The Judiciary, Office of the Attorney General, Office of the Public Defender, Republican Governor Christopher Christie, and civil rights organizations such as the ACLU-NJ all recognized what many New Jerseyans never have to consider: that the freedom of an innocent-until-proven-guilty person shouldn’t rely on the thickness of their wallets, and that the old system preyed on poor communities.

How NJ's New Pretrial System Works

All defendants, other than those facing life imprisonment, are now entitled to a presumption of release.

To detain a defendant, a prosecutor must convince a judge that no conditions could protect the public or ensure that the defendant will return to court. Defendants at these hearings, represented by attorneys, receive the information that informs the state’s case, and they can call and cross examine witnesses.

The system relies on a public-safety assessment (PSA), a tool that allows the judge to make a reasoned decision about detention or release. Designed by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, the PSA is currently in use by about 40 jurisdictions.

It was created using a database of over 1.5 million cases drawn from more than 300 jurisdictions to identify factors that can best predict whether a defendant will be arrested for a new crime, be arrested for a new violent crime, or fail to return to court.

The PSA gives no consideration to race, gender, education, socioeconomic status, or neighborhood. It did not consider demographics to identify predicting factors or determine defendants’ risk scores. That said, concerns about racial bias in predictive tools are valid, and the ACLU-NJ is monitoring the PSA’s implementation and impact.

Why Bail Reform Helps Communities

Releasing people who are accused, though not convicted, of a crime allows them to maintain stability for themselves and their families. People who are detained often lose their job, causing them to struggle financially with paying their rent or mortgage or caring for loved ones, which can strain families. Detention leads people to accept plea bargains for crimes they did not commit, as those detained for trial can spend months behind bars before seeing their day in court. These plea bargains result in the defendant having a criminal record, which imposes obstacles to housing, employment, and education.

Year One Results

New Jersey’s pretrial justice reform first-year results were dramatic.

It led to a 20.3 percent decline in the pretrial jail population. From Jan. 1, 2016, through 2017, which includes the period during which prosecutors began changing their detention recommendations in anticipation of the new legislation, the pretrial detention rate fell 35.7 percent.

In the past, bail bondsmen claimed they monitored those freed on money bail. But for the vast majority, this is an outright lie. Only with the creation of a pretrial services agency has such monitoring become a reality. In 2017, 3,686 individuals were released on what’s called Pretrial Monitoring Level 3+, meaning they are monitored weekly in person or by phone and subject to conditions that can include home detention and electronic monitoring. Unlike the old system, the new one will generate measurable, accountable statistics.

Take a look at pretrial detention statistics from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31, 2017.

Press Releases




  Political Courage
Political Courage
  Impact of Bail Reform on Law Enforcement
Impact of Bail Reform on Law Enforcement
  The Principle of Pretrial Justice
The Principle of Pretrial Justice
  2017 Crime Stats in New Jersey
2017 Crime Stats in New Jersey


Stay Informed

Join the Action Alert e-mail list to stay informed about current issues and campaigns, upcoming events, and how you can get more involved in the fight to protect and expand civil liberties.

ACLU of New Jersey is part of a
network of affiliates

Learn more about ACLU National