In 2012, more than 1,500 people sat in New Jersey jails because they didn’t have, at most, $2,500 to pay bail. Those 1,500-odd people — about 12 percent of all people jailed in the Garden State that year — had neither been convicted of a crime nor faced trial, and were stuck behind bars only because they didn’t have access to cash. 

In the decade since, New Jersey has embarked on an experiment in reducing the number of people incarcerated for lack of funds. 

Cash bail is deeply connected to gun violence, and gun violence to mass incarceration. Gun charges make up a significant portion of criminal charges and convictions in New Jersey and across the country. A 2022 New Jersey Criminal Sentencing and Disposition Commission report, for example, found that gun possession convictions and the sentencing guidelines that come with them are “the single largest contributor to racial disparities in the State [prison] system.” And before convictions, people charged with gun crimes are held pretrial in jails at nearly twice the rate of other defendants. 

“Gun violence is a public health crisis, but our main policy tools for addressing that public health crisis have been punitive in nature and have led to fueling mass incarceration,” Jackie Jahn, an assistant professor in Drexel University’s Dornsife School of Public Health, told me.

New Jersey’s experiment kicked off in 2014, when voters approved a constitutional amendment that sought to end the practice of holding someone in detention before their trial simply because they couldn’t afford to pay their bail. It became effective in 2017. With its changes, New Jersey became one of the first states in the country to take money nearly completely out of the process. Instead of cash bail, the state shifted to a system by which courts and judges used an empirical system to evaluate a person’s risk — to the public, of reoffense, and of skipping trial — to determine whether they should stay in jail or be released before trial.

“We’ve ended a debtors’ prison in New Jersey with these actions,” then-Governor Chris Christie, a Republican, said back in 2017.

Chris Christie, then the governor of New Jersey, greets Iquan Small, center, after speaking to the Legislature about bail reform on July 31, 2014, in Trenton, New Jersey.
AP Photo/, Chris Pedota

Since the change was implemented, the number of people detained pretrial has dropped precipitously. In 2015, more than 9,000 people were held pretrial, but by the end of 2019, that number fell to just over 5,000 — a 44 percent decrease in four years. 

“New Jersey’s policy tried to make it so that financial barriers don’t keep someone in jail before their trial,” Jahn told me. “The effect of this policy was that far fewer people in New Jersey were in jail before their trial. It really reduced jail incarceration and specifically pretrial detention in this state, really sharply.”

While bail reform’s value in addressing mass incarceration is clear, its effect on public safety is frequently the subject of debate. Yet, the evidence is quite strong that bail reform doesn’t increase crime. A new study from a group of researchers at Drexel set out to evaluate bail reform’s effect on gun violence with more academic rigor. 

The study, published May 22, found that New Jersey’s bail reform didn’t make the state less safe.

Jahn, the lead author of the paper, has been wanting to study the effects of bail reform on communities deeply affected by the often coupled epidemics of mass incarceration and community violence for years, she told me. But “one of the things about academic research is you need to wait for a pretty long time for the data,” she said. “During those intervening years, the public debate on bail reform has gone in many different directions.”

Some politicians would have you believe that bail reforms pose a risk to public safety. For the past few years, New Jersey Republicans — whose party participated in the reforms in 2014 — have taken to attacking Democrats as being “soft on crime,” with some calling for a return to the old ways of cash bail

Next door in New York, lawmakers enacted somewhat similar bail reforms in 2019. Since then, Democrats have traded jabs at one another, with some, like Democratic New York City Mayor Eric Adams, blaming bail reform for pandemic-era surges in violence. The debate in New York led bail reform to become a contentious issue in the 2022 midterms, and some blamed it for Republican flips of several New York congressional seats that in part contributed to the Democrats’ loss of their majority in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The misplaced blame isn’t limited to New Jersey and New York: Conservative politicians across the country have blasted bail reform, including the governors of Texas and Ohio, Republicans who have each worked to further entrench cash bail into their state’s criminal justice systems.

Gun violence is a public health crisis, but our main policy tools for addressing that public health crisis have been punitive in nature and have led to fueling mass incarceration.

Jackie Jahn, assistant professor in Drexel University’s Dornsife School of Public Health

Nationwide, some Democrats have even begun to walk back the policies their party once publicly championed, leaving the debate over bail reform today as a foil to the bipartisan compromise of New Jersey a decade ago. Now, Democrats and Republicans alike seem to agree that bail reform is bad for public safety.

But there’s no empirical evidence that that is broadly true.

A cursory look at rates of gun violence shows that New Jersey, the state that has perhaps been working on bail reform the longest, has some of the nation’s lowest rates of violent crime, specifically gun violence. In 2022, the firearm homicide rate in New Jersey was 2.5 per 100,000 people. Meanwhile, Florida, Texas, Ohio, and Georgia all had rates at least twice that, ranging from 5.3 in Florida to 9.5 in Georgia.

But a raw comparison like that isn’t the best or most empirically sound way to measure the effects of a policy intervention — there are too many confounding factors, like New Jersey’s strict gun laws and the South’s weak ones. That’s where research like Jahn’s comes in.

“A lot of the critique and concern about bail reform specifically has been about violence in communities, and has frankly sometimes taken the form of fearmongering about increases in violence under bail reform,” Jahn told me. “What we did was just testing empirically the assumptions of some of those arguments.”

Even under New Jersey’s new risk-based system, people who’ve been charged with gun-related crimes like criminal possession are still jailed pretrial without bail at far higher rates than other defendants. But the links between bail reform and gun violence aren’t just about gun charges specifically: Less-serious charges, for which people are more likely to be granted pretrial release, are still relevant to the question of whether bail reform affects rates of gun violence.

Opponents of bail reforms have alleged that releasing defendants with lower-level, nonviolent charges like theft could lead to them later engaging in violent acts during their pretrial release. Proponents, meanwhile, say that removing people from their communities for low-level offenses could have negative effects, too, like people losing their jobs for being jailed and parents being away from their kids — risk factors that could weaken communities and make them more prone to violence.

“We know gun violence is such a socially networked issue,” Jahn said. “It is also very closely linked to mental health, and collective efficacy and community resilience. When community members and families are separated because of pretrial detention, and because of incarceration, it can exacerbate all of those factors. We thought maybe there would be some mitigation of that type of cycle if there was less jail incarceration.”

For their study, Jahn and her co-authors looked at firearm violence data from two sources: First, deaths due to gun violence, via the National Center for Health Statistics, and second, fatal and nonfatal shooting rates, via the Gun Violence Archive. They limited their analysis to the three years before bail was implemented, from 2014 to 2016, and three years after, from 2017 to 2019, when New Jersey saw its greatest decreases in the number of people held in pretrial detention. 

The researchers then created models to compare the data they gathered to what’s known as a synthetic control, a model compiled from jurisdictions with similar demographics and characteristics, but that did not implement bail reform during the study’s time window.

Jahn began the project, which is also looking at bail reform policy outcomes in other states, with the hypothesis that bail reform wouldn’t increase community violence, and might actually reduce it. 

Their research didn’t find that bail reform reduces violence, but their finding that bail reform didn’t increase gun violence is consistent with previous analyses that have found no increases in new criminal charges against people who were released pretrial under bail reform. Jahn’s study is among the first to look at the broader effect on communities. Previous research has mainly studied the outcomes of the people released pretrial under bail reform. 

Like all such research, this study has limitations: It looked at a restricted time period and can’t completely account for all other factors that could be affecting rates of gun violence in New Jersey. And the results from New Jersey may not be generalizable to bail reforms’ effects in other states, where subtle differences in policy could lead to different outcomes. 

“Just in the three-year follow-up period of this study, we saw there was no change,” Jahn said. “But I think that maybe if we were looking at more outcomes, we might have seen something differently, like a potentially positive effect.”

But there are aspects of New Jersey’s experience that could make it a good window through which to evaluate the effective elimination of cash bail.

“It’s possible to reduce the footprint of the criminal legal system without increasing violence in communities,” Jahn said. “We saw that with bail reform in New Jersey, and think that’s really important for other jurisdictions that are considering reducing pretrial detention through bail reform or other mechanisms.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story erroneously stated that the number of people detained pretrial in New Jersey decreased 27 percent from 2015 through 2019. The correct figure is 44 percent. We regret the error.