Federal judge: Stopping N.J. bail changes would pose ‘high risk’ to community



A federal judge in New Jersey refused to hit the pause button on the state’s criminal justice overhaul Thursday, saying that reverting to a cash-bail system could pose a “high risk” to future defendants and the public.

Judge Jerome B. Simandle denied a request for a preliminary injunction in the case of Brittan Holland, who was charged with aggravated assault after an April bar fight.

Holland, who is on house arrest with a GPS monitor until trial, is contesting the conditions of his release in federal court, claiming they are having a negative impact on his life. His attorneys argued that Holland had a constitutional right to cash bail, which he was not offered by a state court.

The New Jersey attorney general’s office, one of the defendants named in the federal lawsuit, has argued that the new system is fairer than before and there is no established constitutional right to monetary bail.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

In January, New Jersey all but abandoned allowing cash bail to criminal defendants and switched to a risk-based system of deciding whether to release or detain defendants before trial.

It was intended to help poor defendants stuck in jail because they couldn’t afford to pay bail, as well as giving judges the power to detain other defendants who pose a high risk of danger to the public or are unlikely to appear in court.

Holland wanted the federal court to stop state officials and county prosecutors from imposing nonmonetary conditions on defendants and instead return to offering cash bail, which Simandle denied.

“Granting the preliminary injunction would pose a high risk of harm to other interested persons,” Simandle wrote in Thursday’s opinion. “Rolling back the measurable gains brought about under the [Criminal Justice Reform Act] since January 2017 by reinstating the primacy of money bail may also harm the general community by displacing pretrial restrictions meant to protect the community and individual victims and witnesses from risk of harm.”

Simandle also questioned the strength of the constitutional arguments made by Holland and his co-plaintiff, bail bond company Lexington National Insurance Corporation. And he noted that they would not face irreparable harm if the new criminal justice system remained in place.

Holland’s case is one of two major challenges to the Garden State’s nearly 9-month-old criminal justice overhaul.

The other challenge involves June Rodgers, whose son was allegedly murdered by a man released pending trial on unrelated charges. She filed suit against Gov. Chris Christie and other state officials in federal court in July.

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal