Good morning, Chairwoman Greenstein and members of the committee. Thank you for the opportunity to testify today.
I’m Marleina Ubel from New Jersey Policy Perspective (NJPP), a nonpartisan think tank focused on advancing economic, social, and racial justice for New Jersey residents.
S513 has an admirable goal of reducing gun violence. But its broad scope undermines core features of New Jersey’s gold-standard bail reform law and there is no evidence it will actually reduce gun violence.
The proposed bill essentially reverses the substantial progress of the Criminal Justice Reform Act (CJRA). This is because the Graves Act originally encompassed only firearms used as part of serious violent offenses. But since 2008, the Graves Act has encompassed a wide range of offenses. This bill would put mere unlawful possession of a handgun or rifle on par with murder or other crimes eligible for life imprisonment. These two acts do not present nearly the same threat or harm.
And these defendants would be on even worse footing than before the CJRA was enacted. Prior to the CJRA, they could have bailed themselves out through money bail. But under the proposed legislation, these residents would have no recourse to free themselves. Accused of nonviolent and mere possession offenses, many will have to languish in dangerous county lock-ups with no way to prove otherwise to a court until their trial.
The existing law already allows for courts to effectively evaluate whether Graves-Act-eligible offenses are serious enough to warrant pretrial detention, in consideration of all the current factors.
A recent report from the Judiciary on the Graves Act[i] shows that the existing system properly evaluates a defendant’s risk to the community:
- Prosecutors only filed detention motions in 79.4 percent of matters where the defendant was charged with Graves offenses. This means they considered more than 1 in 5 Graves offenses as unserious enough to warrant filing for detention.
- Judges already detain defendants charged with Graves offenses at more than twice the rate of other defendants.
- Only 11 percent of the over 1,000 defendants released pretrial for Graves offenses were rearrested for a serious or weapons-related offense.
The track record of the CJRA is clear: fewer residents are detained in county lock-up, without sacrificing public safety. Adding all Graves offenses to presumptive detention will be replacing a policy scalpel with a sledgehammer aimed at communities of color.
What we learned from the 90s, is that ratcheting up detention just hurts racial and ethnic groups that are already disproportionately hurt by the criminal justice system. If the bill passes in its current form, the exact evils of the cash bail system will return – over incarceration of Black and Hispanic/Latinx residents who have not yet been convicted of a crime, in exchange for little to no public safety benefit: Of Graves Act defendants, over 75 percent were Black while approximately 20 percent were white. By comparison of non-Graves offenses, only 50 percent were Black and 40 percent white.
NJPP opposes S513 in its entirety, but at the very least, amendments should be made to remove the nonviolent and possessory offenses.
[i] Source: New Jersey Administrative Office of the Courts Graves Act Analysis, March 4, 2022: https://www.njcourts.gov/courts/assets/criminal/graves03042022.pdf?c=w6T.