N.J. Senate acts on bail overhaul, Assembly to vote Monday

New Jersey Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, left, and Gov. Chris Christie greets Iquan Small, 21, as he arrives to address a joint session of New Jersey's legislature after calling for a special session to work to overhaul New Jersey's bail system Thursday, July 31, 2014, in Trenton, N.J. Christie cited Iquan Small as an example of the problems people face with high bail for minor offenses, as he used his speech to lawmakers to continue his push to overhaul New Jersey's bail system. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)

TRENTON - The New Jersey Senate passed two proposals Thursday that would upend the state's bail system, hours after Gov. Christie delivered a special address imploring lawmakers to act.

The Assembly did not act, but Speaker Vincent Prieto (D., Hudson) notified members in the early evening that he would call for a vote Monday.

That is the last day lawmakers have to vote on one of the measures - a proposed constitutional amendment eliminating the right to bail for certain defendants - if they want to put it before voters in November.

"There comes a moment when it's time to act," Christie said in his 21-minute address to the Legislature. The bail system, he said, "amounts to a debtors' prison in this country."

"Folks who don't have enough money to post bail have no choice but to either sit in jail and await adjudication of their charges, or to plead guilty, to get time served just as a way of getting out, oftentimes pleading guilty to crimes they did not commit," Christie said. "This is not a fair and just system."

Legislative leaders agree, but Prieto said certain details still need to be addressed.

Under consideration are two measures. The constitutional amendment would allow judges to order detention without bail for defendants who they determine may not show up in court, would threaten the safety of others, or would obstruct or attempt to obstruct justice.

Currently, judges cannot deny bail in New Jersey.

The second component is a bill that would allow for the release of other defendants without bail before trial, if judges determine they do not pose those risks.

The legislation also would specify the time frame in which defendants can be held in jail before trial, a provision intended to expand on the right to a speedy trial granted by the U.S. and state constitutions.

Indictments would have to be returned within 90 days of a defendant's being detained, and a trial would have to begin within 180 days following the indictment.

The policies were broadly endorsed by a committee led by state Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner.

Prieto said some Assembly Democrats want more information about the mechanism judges would use to assess whether defendants are released or detained before trial.

Members also want to learn more about how the speedy trial provision would work, and how a statewide risk assessment program would be funded.

"These are all things we want to make sure we get right," Prieto said. "We are changing our constitution."

"That's something serious," he said. "Every time you do that, you want to make sure every member - they're elected to these positions by about 220,000 residents in their districts - their voice needs to be heard by our whole caucus."

State Sen. Donald Norcross (D., Camden), a sponsor of the amendment and accompanying bill, said funding would be guaranteed because it would be a constitutional requirement.

New court fees are expected to raise revenue during the two-year implementation, and counties are likely to save money with fewer inmates, Norcross said.

Some lawmakers have questioned the urgency of the matter. The amendment would not take effect until 2017.

"This deadline, I believe, is an artificial deadline. There's no reason why we can't sit down and vet this bill out, and make it a better bill," said Assemblyman Gordon Johnson (D., Bergen).

"Just because it's an urgent matter for the governor doesn't mean it's urgent for me and the legislative branch of government."

Of the risk-assessment program, he said, "I don't know who's doing it. I don't know how it's done. I don't know if it's even working."

Johnson said he did not think the Assembly would pass the package.

"In the conversations I heard, the black caucus I don't think is going to go along with it," said Johnson, a member of the black caucus. "I don't think the majority of the Democratic caucus is going to go along with it, from the discussions I heard."

The amendment can only make the ballot with a three-fifths vote, or 48 votes in the 80-member chamber. It passed by 30-0 in the 40-member Senate.

Before the Assembly can vote on the amendment, legislators must also meet a 60-vote threshold for procedural reasons.

With many legislators on summer vacation, that could be difficult to achieve. Some were also resistant to being pushed by Christie into action, given his reneging on important issues such as fully funding the state pension system.

Some Assembly Democrats "don't have a confidence level to take him at his word," said Majority Leader Louis D. Greenwald (D., Camden).

Christie has "made very strong commitments in the past and hasn't followed through on them. Whatever the legislation is, there's a curious eye," Greenwald said.

Supporters say urgency is needed because putting off a vote until next year would delay implementation until 2018.

There may also be a political calculus.

Christie could resign next year to run for president, so this could be his last chance to add bail reform to his resumé. Christie, a former federal prosecutor, has been railing against the bail system since 2012, saying it lets dangerous criminals walk the streets.

Norcross is running for Congress in the First District and is considered the favorite to win in November.

Norcross dismissed political motivation, noting that he has been working on the issue for three years.

"Our system shouldn't be based on how thick your wallet is, but should be based on risk to society," Norcross said. "That's what we want to change it to."

Generally, the Assembly works at a more deliberate pace than the Senate. Earlier this year, Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) supported Christie's call to renew a cap on raises awarded to police and firefighters through arbitration.

Prieto, who became speaker in January, held out for a few months but ultimately brokered a compromise with Christie.

"You have a new leader in the Assembly and you have a Senate president who's been around for a while," said Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R., Union). "I think you have to feel each other out.

"I think the governor and Vinnie Prieto are feeling each other out a little bit. It seems they're doing OK. They may not agree on that day, but they seem to agree over a period of time."