Christie calls Legislature for special session to revamp bail system

TRENTON - Gov. Christie on Tuesday called the Legislature to meet in special session this week in an effort to overhaul New Jersey's bail system, but a top Democrat warned the legislation remained a "work in progress."

In a letter to legislative leaders, Christie said he would ask to address members of the Legislature when it convenes Thursday at noon.

At issue is a proposed constitutional amendment and a separate piece of legislation. The amendment, which must be approved by voters, would allow judges to deny bail if, following a prosecutor's motion, they are concerned that defendants would not show up to court, would threaten the safety of others, or would obstruct or attempt to obstruct justice.

Currently, judges are not allowed to deny bail. To put the question before voters in November, the Legislature must pass the amendment with a three-fifths vote in both houses by Aug. 4. Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) has set Thursday as the target date to pass it.

Accompanying legislation would allow for the release of other defendants from jail before trial, if judges determine they don't pose these risks.

Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D., Hudson) said the amendment wouldn't take effect until 2017 and said his chamber would "continue to make every effort to get these bills ready, and will act when ready to do so."

"The governor has authority to call a special session, but that doesn't change the fact that this legislation remains a work in progress, with significant questions and concerns and a lack of consensus among Assembly members," Prieto said in a statement.

The governor cannot force a vote.

Both measures were recommended in March by state Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner's Joint Committee on Criminal Justice.

"Our current bail system allows dangerous offenders back on the streets to commit additional crimes, threaten witnesses, and intimidate whole neighborhoods, all while their cases are pending," Christie wrote in the July 29 letter to Sweeney, Senate Minority Leader Thomas H. Kean Jr. (R., Union), Prieto, and Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R., Union).

"We must act now, in the public interest, to protect our children and our communities from the most serious criminals who, under current law, must be set free if able to post even a fraction of bail set by a judge."

Equally important is the need to ensure low-level offenders don't languish in jail before trial simply because they cannot post bail, say legislative Democrats and groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and Drug Policy Alliance.

Yet significant hurdles remain. Members of the New Jersey Legislative Black Caucus, including State Sens. Ron Rice (D., Essex) and Nia Gill (D., Essex), have called for the amendment to include language outlining the right to a speedy trial.

That right is already enshrined in the U.S. and New Jersey Constitutions, but the documents don't provide specific time frames.

Other lawmakers, including Sweeney and Sen. Donald Norcross (D., Camden), a sponsor, want that language to be included in the legislation.

Rice says the statute could be ignored or changed easily.

The legislation would move New Jersey away from a monetary-based bail system toward a risk-based one. Some lawmakers are concerned the state won't have sufficient resources to implement a statewide risk-assessment program outlined in the legislation, said one of its sponsors, Assemblyman John Burzichelli (D., Gloucester).

"It will get done," he said. "Will it get done Thursday? We'll have to see."

The Legislature could also take up the bail package at a later date, perhaps in time for the 2015 ballot.

"Everyone wants something here, which is how you get a deal done," Burzichelli said.

The state constitution grants the governor the authority to convene the Legislature "whenever in his opinion the public interest shall require."

Christie last held a special session in July 2012 to urge the Legislature to pass a property-tax relief measure. Christie was considered a possible vice presidential candidate at the time, and Democrats panned his message as political theater.