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More than half of the people being held in U.S. jails have not been convicted of a crime. Many defendants are awaiting trial behind bars simply because they can't afford to make bail. Starting next month, New Jersey hopes to drastically reduce its reliance on bail money. As NPR's Joel Rose reports, activists in other states are watching to see how that works.
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Mustafa Willis has seen the bail process in New Jersey up close. Willis was arrested in Newark in 2010 for unlawful possession of a firearm. The charges were later dropped, but he spent three months in jail before his family could scrape together $3,000 to bail him out.
MUSTAFA WILLIS: When you feel like you don't have that kind of money or no way to get out, the only thing you're going to do is say I'll take probation so I can get home and get back to my job and get back to my family. That's the only thing because how the rules work, if you don't bail out, you're going to sit there.
ROSE: Willis' story is not unusual. In 2013, a study found that three-quarters of people in New Jersey county jails were waiting for their day in court. Forty percent could have walked out of jail except that they couldn't afford to make bail.
ROSEANNE SCOTTI: They sit in jail for months and sometimes for years. They lose jobs. They lose housing. They lose connections to families. They can lose their children.
ROSE: Roseanne Scotti is the director of the Drug Policy Alliance of New Jersey, which helped fund that study.
SCOTTI: Most of these individuals are low-risk individuals who could be released pending trial. But because we are a money-based system and not a risk-based system, they sat there because they didn't have money.
ROSE: How much money are we talking?
SCOTTI: About 12 percent of the people who are in jail are there for less than $2,000. And that was something that shocked everyone, legislators, judges, people in the system and the public.
ROSE: Most reports about pretrial detention just sit on the shelf. But this one prompted some serious soul-searching in New Jersey and not just from liberal activists. Here's Republican Governor Chris Christie, a former federal prosecutor, signing the state's bail reform law in 2014.
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CHRIS CHRISTIE: Under these reforms, our justice system will be both more effective in protecting our communities from dangerous, violent, repeat offenders and fairer to those nonviolent offenders who do not deserve to sit in what has become the equivalent of debtor's prison because they can't afford to post the bail.
ROSE: New Jersey isn't the first place to move away from bail. The federal government did it years ago; so did Washington, D.C. A handful of other states have tried various reforms, but New Jersey's maybe the most extensive, according to Insha Rahman at the Vera Institute of Justice.
INSHA RAHMAN: It was really we're going to sort of from top to bottom clean house and start over with something that essentially looks pretty new. So it's sort of the great experiment.
ROSE: Here's how the experiment will work. Starting next month, judges in New Jersey will use what's called a risk assessment tool to help decide if a defendant is likely to flee or commit another crime. For high-risk defendants, judges can order them held without bail, like the federal system. On the other hand, judges are encouraged to release the majority of low-risk defendants without bail. Stuart Rabner is the chief justice of New Jersey.
STUART RABNER: What has been seen in other jurisdictions where this has been done is that the prison population has gone down. People are showing up in court, and the rate of crime while people are on release has actually gone down as well.
ROSE: In Washington, D.C., for example, the vast majority of defendants are released without bail. Almost 90 percent show up for court, but Washington's pretrial detention system is elaborate and expensive. Counties in New Jersey complain that they're being forced to hire more sheriffs and prosecutors without any extra money. Jeff Clayton directs the American Bail Coalition, an industry trade group.
JEFF CLAYTON: We are simply sitting back and saying we told you in 2014 this would be expensive and difficult to implement. And then the fundamental question of, you know, whatever fairness it is we're buying, is it worth it?
ROSE: But the new system seems a lot fairer to Mustafa Willis. He wound up owing thousands of dollars to a bail bondsman after his arrest in Newark.
WILLIS: I was in debt from this, and the case was still dismissed, and I still had to pay them for nothing, something that I didn't even have, like.
ROSE: There is one thing that reformers and the bail industry seem to agree on - if New Jersey's experiment goes well, other states will try to copy it. Joel Rose, NPR News, East Orange, N.J.
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