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Why the Wisconsin massacre wouldn't have happened in New Jersey | Moran

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Prosecutors in Wisconsin admit that they blew it by agreeing to release Darrell Brooks from jail on $1,000 bail a few weeks before he was charged with killing six people at a Christmas parade with his SUV in a maniacal rampage on Sunday.

His original crime? He was charged with using his car to run over a woman who is reportedly the mother of his child, a dress rehearsal for Sunday's larger attack, which left 60 people injured in addition to those killed.

The tragedy has provoked a surge of anger across the country, some of it aimed at progressive criminal justice reforms in states like New Jersey, where a 2017 reform allowed for the release of thousands of suspects without bail, leading to a sharp drop in our jail populations that reached 40 percent at one point.

It's an understandable instinct. Ensuring public safety must be the priority of our criminal justice system, and the crucial test that any progressive reform must pass.

But take a closer look. The truth is that in New Jersey, a repeat offender like Brooks would almost surely have been denied bail, preventing this larger tragedy from ever happening.

The 2017 reform allows judges to release those who present little danger, yes. But it also allows them to slam the door on violent men like Brooks, whose criminal history stretches back two decades. He is a registered sex criminal, has been found guilty of assault, illegal gun possession, drug charges, and resisting arrest.

And since this reform took effect, no suspect in New Jersey can be freed until a judge finds that he or she would not endanger the public safety. Brooks would have failed that test by a mile.

"Anyone who is pointing to Wisconsin and blaming bail reform has it backwards," says Elie Honig, a former senior federal and state prosecutor who runs the Rutgers Institute for Secure Communities. "Wisconsin has a cash bail system very similar to the one we got rid of, where the only factor a judge can consider is the risk of flight."

Most states still follow the Wisconsin model. But in 2014, at the urging of Gov. Chris Christie and now Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner, voters in New Jersey overwhelming approved an amendment to our Constitution that set us apart.

It upended the system that had forced thousands of non-violent drug suspects to rot in jail as they awaited trial, sometimes for years, only because they could not afford to pay minimal bails. That same system tied the hands of prosecutors and judges by requiring them to release richer defendants who could afford to pay bail, even when they presented a clear threat.

From the perspective of hawks or doves, this system was indefensible.

Consider: Even today, if Brooks were able to pay his $5 million bail, he would be entitled to walk out of jail as a free man under Wisconsin's constitution. That was the law of the land in New Jersey as well, until 2017.

For the drug kingpins and other rich criminals, this system was a godsend. It gave many of them freedom, no matter how horrible their crimes, as long as they could show they were likely to show up for their trials. For violent suspects, it offered a chance to intimidate witnesses or exact revenge on accusers.

And don't forget taxpayers. Holding impoverished non-violent prisoners is a pointless waste of money that New Jersey's reform ended. Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo says the reform has sharply reduced the headcount at the county jail in Newark. "If it keeps on going the way the program is, there will be a savings - there's no question about it."

Several states have since enacted reforms like ours, including New York, which has gotten some important details wrong. In New Jersey, judges have discretion in all cases, but in New York, judges can't set bail for a long list of crimes, including stalking, assault without serious injury, burglary, and even some kinds of arson and robbery - even if the judge believes the suspect presents a public danger.

That's dangerous and overboard, and Eric Adams, the mayor-elect in New York City, says he'll soon try to fix this.

New Jersey has been more careful, and the reform is working quite well so far. The number of suspects held on bail under $2,500 has dropped from 1,500 before the reform to just 14 at last count. And the rate of recidivism has been stable, evidence that the old system delivered no greater benefit to public safety.

The voters were right to embrace this reform in the 2014 referendum. In Wisconsin, already, a Republican and Democratic senator have teamed up to push for a similar reform there. It is hard to think of a more fitting way to honor those who died in this senseless crime.

More: Tom Moran columns

Tom Moran may be reached at tmoran@starledger.com. Follow him on Twitter @tomamoran. Find NJ.com Opinion on Facebook.

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