State Bail Reform Leaves Municipal Court Shorthanded

Howell Township Municipal Building (Photo by Micromedia Publications)

HOWELL – Implications brought on by recent state bail reform legislation can be seen with a closer look at Howell Township’s municipal court.

At the township’s March 6 budget meeting, Court Administrator Rosemary O’Donnell revealed challenges brought on by the recent legislation, which eliminates bail for many defendants and forces a speedier trial for warrants. The intention was to keep the system fair for poor defendants who struggle to post bail and face losing jobs and critical medical care while incarcerated.

“Before, we would only handle disorderly persons or petty disorderly persons cases. Now, we are getting remanded from the prosecutor’s office and the criminal division fourth degree and, believe it or not, a lot of third degree cases,” said O’Donnell.

As a result, the court is now seeing double the amount of cases they handled in the same timeframe last year, and currently has 2,100 active pending cases.

Prior to 2014, court staff was comprised of a court administrator and six full-time employees. Now, they get by with just four full-time staff. O’Donnell asked for an additional violations clerk to be added to the budget, citing that the court’s annual budget is typically well below the roughly $750,000 it earns in annual revenue.

Our caseload increase is really starting to build up now,” said O’Donnell. “The violations clerk would help tremendously.”

Township Manager Jeffrey Mayfield confirmed that in-house staff had to be pulled from other departments several times in 2016, and for several days at a time, to help with mounting paperwork and answering of seven phone lines.

O’Donnell shared that the surrounding townships of Middletown and Wall each have six and seven full-time employees to handle similar caseloads. While a new clerk salary would add $35,000 to the budget without benefits, overtime pay last year was over $50,000.

The municipal court has also started to phase out evening court sessions, which make the process easier for people who are working. The vast majority of municipal courts in Monmouth County only offer daytime court sessions.

“Let’s hope the legislation gets smart in that their bail reform is not working the way they thought it was going to work,” said Deputy Mayor Nicastro.