New Jersey Mayors Say Bail Reform Shouldn't Include Gun Charges

AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews

For over a year now we’ve been highlighting the incompatibility between Democrats’ support for criminal justice reform and their continued embrace of new gun control laws, while Democrats themselves have mostly tried to ignore the fact that the two issues are fundamentally at odds with each other.

It’s hard to argue that the current criminal justice system is leads to mass incarceration and disparate outcomes for minorities while also declaring that we need to create new crimes out of the right to keep and bear arms; throwing people in prison for things like possessing a 17-round magazine, selling a firearm to a neighbor without putting them through a background check, or even carrying a firearm for self-defense in a state where permits are required yet unavailable to the average citizen.

Yet there are plenty of anti-gun activists and politicians who apparently believe that the Second Amendment rights of Americans should be exempt from any criminal justice reform efforts, including a group of New Jersey mayors who want the state to backtrack on its 2017 bail reform law and exclude “gun crimes” from the law’s effects.

During a press conference outside Paterson City Hall, the mayors said the state should disqualify defendants accused of gun crimes from the jail release provisions of state bail reform.

“We can’t let the people who are perpetuating the gun violence remain free after they are arrested,” said Reed Gusciora, mayor of Trenton, where shooting incidents increased by 48% in 2020.

Paterson Mayor Andre Sayegh said he and his counterparts in the New Jersey Urban Mayors Association were lobbying key legislators and the state Attorney General’s Office to get a gun crime exemption added to the state’s bail reform law. Also present at Tuesday’s event were the mayors of Hillside, Plainfield and Roselle.

“We have to hold people accountable,” said Hillside Mayor Dahlia Vertese.

When asked during the press conference for statistics about the impact bail reform had on gun violence, Sayegh acknowledged that the group had not collected any data. He said the group has only anecdotal evidence of the problem.

Paterson last year endured record numbers of shootings and homicides, and the numbers for 2021 so far have surged ahead of that pace.

It’s true that violent crime is way up in Paterson, Trenton, Newark, and a number of other communities in the state, though it’s also worth noting that violent crime is actually down in Camden, which was once the murder capitol of the United States. Police there credit “community policing,” which has brought officers in closer contact with community members and has helped increase the homicide clearance rate to more than 90% (Paterson’s is closer to 30%, according to the Paterson Press newspaper).

So, I’m not convinced that bail reform has automatically led to an increase in violent crime in New Jersey, but I’m also puzzled by the fuzziness of what exactly these mayors are proposing.

What exactly is a “gun crime”, according to these mayors? Does it only include violent crimes in which a firearm is used, or does it also entail mere possessory offenses like having a gun without a pistol purchase permit or a valid New Jersey carry license?

My guess is it’s all of the above, but honestly, even if the mayors are only talking about charges involving violent crimes in which a gun was used, their demand is still off-base. Why should someone accused of armed robbery get a low bail just because they used a knife instead of a gun? The end result is still the same, after all.

A simpler solution would be to exempt all crimes of violence from the bail reform law, but I don’t think these mayors would go for it. They seem intent on focusing on one inanimate object, rather than the individual perpetrating violent crimes. That’s the wrong approach, though at least the mayors are making it clear that if it comes down to criminal justice reform or gun control, they’re going with gun control every time.