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Appeals Court Rules In Favor Of New Jersey's Bail Overhaul


The state of New Jersey is dodging a major legal challenge to its criminal justice system. A federal appeals court ruled that New Jersey was within its rights to virtually eliminate cash bail last year. Instead, the state began to evaluate criminal defendants based on the risk they pose to the public. Now other states are using New Jersey as a model. Here's Joe Hernandez from member station WHYY.

JOE HERNANDEZ, BYLINE: In April of last year, police charged a South Jersey man named Brittan Holland with aggravated assault for his alleged role in a bar fight after a Philadelphia Eagles game. This was well into New Jersey's cash bail overhaul, so instead of issuing money bail, a judge sent Holland home, put him on house arrest and made him wear a GPS monitor. Holland sued the state, saying he had a constitutional right to pay cash bail and go free before trial, no strings attached. But on Monday, a federal appeals court in Philadelphia ruled against him, saying there's no guarantee in the law that Holland get the option of money bail. The court said New Jersey's cash bail overhaul, which Holland wanted to stop, can keep operating.

ALEX SHALOM: We think the court did exactly what we expected them to do because it's what every judge who has looked at this case has done.

HERNANDEZ: Alex Shalom is a senior staff attorney with the ACLU of New Jersey.

SHALOM: ...Which has said that New Jersey was not only constitutionally permitted to do what they did, but they were wise to do what they did because the former system was a miscarriage of justice.

HERNANDEZ: Under the former system, most criminal defendants got money bail, but many poor defendants couldn't afford it. That's when New Jersey basically scrapped cash bail and instead began releasing low-risk defendants with some supervision. It also means judges could keep the most dangerous offenders in jail. While supporters have hailed the state's shrinking jail population, critics in the bail bonds community say the law has made New Jersey less safe, and it's killed their business. Jeff Clayton is executive director of the American Bail Coalition

JEFF CLAYTON: What we're seeing is a lot of guys looking for either to move or to go into other lines of business, and they're just questioning whether the policy has worked.

HERNANDEZ: The state plans to release data on the new system's effectiveness this year. Although the court denied Holland's motion for an injunction against the state, his case can still proceed. And there are other legal challenges pending, too, which means the final word on New Jersey's effort to scrap cash bail is yet to come. For NPR News, I'm Joe Hernandez.

(SOUNDBITE OF KORESMA'S "BRIDGES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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