Lawsuit Challenges NJ Bail Reform Law

Reality show celebrity Dog the Bounty Hunter supports overturning New Jersey's Criminal Justice Reform Act, which took effect at the start of the year. Photo credit: NorthJersey.com

Reality show celebrity Dog the Bounty Hunter supports overturning New Jersey's Criminal Justice Reform Act, which took effect at the start of the year. Photo credit: NorthJersey.com

By Christopher Zoukis

He’s probably not the first name you’d think of when hearing a celebrity is taking a stand against a New Jersey criminal law, bur cable-channel reality star Duane Chapman, better known as “Dog the Bounty Hunter,” was recently on the steps of the federal courthouse in Trenton, NJ, decrying what he sees as the evil effects of the state’s Criminal Justice Reform Act, which took effect at the start of this year.

The heavily muscled, long-haired, goateed and tattooed bounty hunter who appears with his wife Beth (who now heads an organization of bail agents) on syndicated A&E and new CMT programs depicting a bounty hunter’s work adventures, stood with June Rodgers, the lead plaintiff in a federal lawsuit seeking to overturn the New Jersey law.

He called the statute “dangerous, fake reform” and blamed it for the murder of Rodgers’ 26-year-old son Christian earlier this year. Chapman argued that a 30-year-old career criminal who shot Christian 22 times had been arrested on felony gun charges only days earlier, and blames the unduly lax state law for putting the gunman back on the street.

Named as defendants in the suit are the state’s governor Chris Christie and attorney general Christopher Porrino, as well as a former state attorney-general, who while heading a private foundation spearheaded development of the risk-assessment tool that New Jersey now uses to determine whether criminal defendants should be held in custody until their trial is completed, or released without having to post bail.

The formula used in the risk-assessment is so flawed, the lawsuit alleges, that dangerous criminals – like the one who murdered Christian Rodgers — are being released, and several cases are cited in which people released under the bail reform law committed serious offenses soon thereafter.

The lawsuit also notes the state attorney-general, about six weeks after Rodgers’ son was slain, recommended that state prosecutors try to persuade courts to deny release to defendants who are accused of serious gun offenses, sex offenses, or who are already on parole or pre-trial release for other crimes.

The plaintiffs claim the bail reform law violates both the federal and state constitutions, and intentionally disregards the danger the new law creates to communities. Preliminary state figures for the first half of this year show about 18,000 defendants were released pre-trial without bond, compared with only about 3,300 held without bond – a nearly 20 percent increase statewide.

Critics of the bail reform measure also fault the developers of the risk-analysis test for creating a dangerously defective product and failing to warn the public. They seek to have the new law blocked, and Mrs. Rodgers awarded damages for what they claim is her son’s wrongful death.

Backers of the bail reform measure note the measure was ratified by state voters and argue the murderer of Christian Rodgers would likely have also been released under the state’s previous law. They also point to the state’s declining crime rate and money saved by reducing the numbers of pre-trial detainees. Some also argue the need for wider bail reform and pointedly note that the lawsuit was brought by a law firm supported by Lexus, a private bond services company.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonerResource.com.