Strong Pretrial Services Lead to a More Just Criminal Legal System

Testimony from NJPP Policy Director Awinna Martinez in support of strengthening New Jersey's pretrial services.

Published on Mar 7, 2024 in Public Safety

Good morning, Chairman Stack and Members of the Senate Judiciary:

My name is Awinna Martinez. I am the Policy Director of the New Jersey Policy Perspective, a nonpartisan think tank focused on state-level policies that advance economic, social, and racial justice. Thank you for having me here today.

Our stated mission at NJPP is to ensure that all of New Jersey’s residents enjoy lives of dignity, opportunity, and economic security. We know the criminal legal system has everlasting and harsh consequences on families and children, financial stability, pathways to education, the workforce, and the fabric of our communities. It is widely known that interactions with the criminal legal system disproportionately impact Black and brown communities.

Criminal legal system reform should not be taken lightly but driven by data and research to create policies that promote public safety while ensuring a fair and equitable system.

New Jersey’s 2017 Criminal Justice Reform (CJR) is a policy informed by long-standing research[i] that eliminating cash bail and reducing pretrial detention address racial disparities in our system without negatively impacting public safety. An early evaluation of the CJR found that arrests dropped significantly in the year following CJR implementation.[ii]  Seven years later, New Jersey has become a pretrial justice leader nationally for significantly decreasing the use of pretrial detention while maintaining the same or better crime rates.[iii]

More than 400,000 individuals are held pretrial across the country, with most unable to pay bail. It is significant that we can say that here in New Jersey, we are not contributing to this alarming trend. We have eliminated “the debtors’ prison” that makes up many other places nationwide.

I want to emphasize how important it is for the state to build on the success of our bail reform laws by investing in better support for justice-involved individuals rather than resorting to misguided rollbacks in response to political pressures. There is no evidence linking increases in crime to individuals on pretrial release.

Our communities are better served by policymakers who focus on strengthening our pretrial system. First, this means committing to a mission focused on treating pretrial services separately from all other stages of the criminal legal system process — pretrial is not probation, parole, or reentry. American jurisprudence presumes these individuals are innocent until the resolution of their case says otherwise. Adopting proposals to increase the number of people exposed to the harms of pretrial detention undercuts the work of this legislature and what the evidence tells us.

Pretrial’s key players (judges, defense attorneys, prosecutors, and pretrial staff) should operate under the same mission rather than relying on the harms and pressures imposed by pretrial detention. Ensuring the criminal legal system upholds the fundamental rights of a presumption of innocence and due process while delivering timely case resolutions is the way to achieve just, fair, and equitable outcomes.

Second, investing in pretrial services means allocating more funding statewide. In New Jersey, the quality of pretrial services should remain consistent across all counties, no matter where an individual’s criminal matter is situated. Consistency ensures everyone receives the necessary support to navigate their pretrial experience successfully. Compliance with conditions of release and success in the pretrial phase can be achieved through investments in resources in pretrial support systems and agencies that already have a touch point with defendants, such as the Office of the Public Defender and county-level pretrial services staff. Connection to these resources can address an individual’s housing, education, employment, and health care needs.

I want to close by sharing that before joining NJPP, I spent my career focused on criminal legal reform, focusing on diversion and alternatives to incarceration. For three years, I oversaw a pretrial services agency entirely staffed by case managers and social workers, whose main goals were to respond to individual needs and provide resources and programming when possible.

Drawing from personal experience, I witnessed firsthand the transformative impact of increased funding on staffing levels and providing supportive services that did not rely on a law enforcement approach. We had a compliance rate of almost 90%, even during the height of the pandemic, when operations had to move remotely. We attributed this success to the supportive services model that allowed us to use a wraparound human-centric approach. These investments enable pretrial services to offer individualized attention and comprehensive case management, addressing any underlying needs that could hinder an individual’s progress during the pretrial stage.

In New Jersey, we have seen our incarceration rate decrease significantly.[iv] This allows individuals to return home, support their families, maintain employment, and ensure some measure of stability while their case is being resolved. But we know there is more work to do. New Jersey continues to have the worst racial disparities in the country, where a Black adult is 12 times more likely to be incarcerated than a white adult. Any steps policymakers take in addressing our system should be to make it stronger–changes rooted in equity and fairness–not informed by what we think makes public safety work but instead by what we know.  It is critical to understand the data and research and balance this with understanding the harms that we know occur to individuals, families, and communities when we over-police and over-incarcerate.

Thank you.

[i] Schnake, Timothy R., Fundamentals of Bail: A Resource Guide for Pretrial Practitioners and a Framework for American Pretrial Reform, September 2014, Chapter 4: Pretrial Research, pp 64-85, http://static.nicic.gov.s3.amazonaws.com/Library/028360.pdf

[ii] Anderson et.al, Evaluation of Pretrial Justice System Reforms that Use the Public Safety Assessment: Effects of New Jersey’s Criminal Justice Reform, November 2019, https://www.mdrc.org/sites/default/files/PSA_New_Jersey_Report_%231.pdf

[iii] Staudt, Sarah, Releasing people pretrial doesn’t harm public safety, Prison Policy Initiative, July 6, 2023, https://www.prisonpolicy.org/blog/2023/07/06/bail-reform/

[iv] Hernandez, Amanda, Releasing suspects pretrial doesn’t lead to higher crime rates, experts say, February 22, 2024, https://newjerseymonitor.com/2024/02/22/releasing-suspects-pretrial-doesnt-lead-to-higher-crime-rates-experts-say/

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