The recent deaths of Tiffany Wilson and Anishalee Cortes highlighted the issue of domestic violence as it relates to New Jersey’s new bail system. Wilson was tragically shot to death by her ex-boyfriend, Kareem Dawson, after he was released by the Court for the second time pending trial. He was initially charged with aggravated assault for allegedly using his car to ram Wilson’s car, while her children were inside. Similarly, Cortes was also killed by an ex-partner, Dominik Richards, after he was set free by the Court pending trial. Richards faced aggravated assault charges for allegedly threatening Cortes at gunpoint.
New Jersey Criminal Bail System and Domestic Violence Charges
In January 2017, New Jersey’s bail system was reformed. The old model reflected the traditional school of thought, meaning, the Court would impose a large cash bail or bond in order to ensure that the defendant returned to court. The new model operates by following a risk assessment scale; based upon the person’s score, the court can release the suspect, release the suspect with certain monitoring conditions, or detain the person until trial. To make that decision, judges rely heavily on the computer-generated risk assessment score that instantly references a defendant’s prior convictions, newly alleged crime, and seven other factors to rank on a scale of one to six both their likelihood of failing to appear in court and their likelihood of new criminal activity, as well as flag any risk of new violent criminal activity.
Due to public outcry over cases like the recent ones involving Dawson and Richards, the NJ State Judiciary is looking into whether prior domestic violence incidents could be specifically factored into the risk assessment score. “Currently, the tool does not include an assessment of domestic violence,” Judge Glenn Grant, the courts’ acting administrative director, told the state Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee last week. “We are trying to explore with a consultant whether domestic violence can be added as an additional factor.”
John Harrison, the criminal division manager for the Passaic Vicinage of state Superior Court, said that the PSA — which draws from a number of state databases — will generate a specific flag for new violent criminal activity if the defendant has at least one prior conviction in a domestic violence case, even if it’s a disorderly persons offense rather than an indictable one.
Recent pending domestic violence charges without convictions — like those Dawson had at the time of his second detention hearing — won’t trigger such a warning on their own, however.
Also, it’s important to note, judges are not bound by the assessment’s recommendations and can reject them with an official explanation. Still, domestic violence advocates say better tools are needed to inform the judges’ decisions. “We are strongly advocating that the courts implement a tool to assess domestic violence risk factors,” said Nicole Morella, the public policy and communications director for the New Jersey Coalition to End Domestic Violence.
What may be imposed is a supplementary tool, the Ontario Domestic Violence Risk Assessment (ODARA), which is being used by county prosecutors in conjunction with the PSA in determining whether to seek detention in domestic violence cases. The assessment, developed in Canada, asks 13 questions to identify whether there’s a risk of repeated violence by the defendant against the same victim, including whether the defendant and the victim have at least one child together.
Although the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office has directed prosecutors to use the ODARA tool, state officials have said its scores could not be presented to judges in detention hearings without the passage of legislation similar to the criminal justice reforms that mandated the PSA.