Reality TV star Duane “Dog the Bounty Hunter” Chapman on Monday joined a federal lawsuit against New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), alleging that the state’s bail reform initiative, enacted earlier this year, led to the violation of the constitutional rights of a man who was shot to death in April.
Chapman announced his support for the suit at a press conference in front of the U.S. District Court building in Trenton, where he appeared alongside June Rodgers, the lead plaintiff in the case.
In a statement before the press conference, Chapman blasted what he called the state’s “dangerous, fake reform.” He blamed the reforms for the wrongful death of Rodgers’ son, Christian, 26, who was fatally shot in Vineland in April.
“Christie should be ashamed of himself,” Chapman said. “The governor needs to know that the eyes of every American who loves their family and wants to preserve law and order are on him right now.”
Jules Black, 30, has been charged with murder in Christian Rodgers’ slaying. Black had been arrested on felony gun charges days before the shooting, but was released from jail under New Jersey’s bail reform law, which essentially eliminated the use of cash bail at the beginning of the year. Judges now use a risk assessment system to release most defendants without requiring them to pay.
The lawsuit claims June Rodgers is entitled to punitive damages because Christie, state Attorney General Christopher Porrino, and the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, the organization that developed the risk-assessment tool now used in New Jersey, allegedly “acted with a willful and conscience [sic] indifference to the laws that protect” the constitutional rights of the Rodgers family. The suit is also seeking injunctive relief to halt New Jersey’s bail reform law.
“Make no mistake that the state of New Jersey, that Attorney General Porrino, that Governor Christie, that the Laura and John Arnold Foundation are Christian’s killers as well,” said Mike Donovan, president and CEO of Nexus Services, Inc., at the press conference. Nexus is a controversial for-profit bail services group that is funding Rodgers’ lawsuit through Nexus Caridades, Inc., a law firm that the company sponsors.
The New Jersey attorney general’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Rodgers’ lawsuit is the latest challenge to New Jersey’s bail reform law, which voters initially approved in November 2014. Under the new system, judges rely on a comprehensive, evidence-based risk assessment, which weighs a suspect’s criminal history and other factors to determine conditions for release before trial. A judge can order a defendant held without bail if they are found to be a substantial risk to community safety, but most defendants are now released without financial conditions, with some required to report to a pretrial services agency ahead of their trial date.
“The risk assessment is validated on hundreds of thousands of records to be predictive of whether or not someone will commit a new offense, whether or not they’ll commit a violent offense and whether they’ll return to court,” said Roseanne Scotti, director of the New Jersey chapter of the Drug Policy Alliance, a nonprofit that advocated for the state’s bail reform law.
“Under the old system, a court could not even consider dangerousness ― it was against the law,” added Scotti. “The only thing they could consider was whether or not they thought the person would show back up for court.”
Although Black was among the defendants released under the state’s bail reform law, Scotti said he also would have been able to get out under the previous system, which allowed suspects to simply pay for their freedom. Under the money bail scheme, those who can’t afford their full bail amount may secure release with the help of a for-profit bail bonds service, which charges a non-refundable premium ― typically 10 percent of the total. Commercial bail bondsmen exist in only two countries, the U.S. and the Philippines.
Porrino announced tweaks to the law shortly after Rodgers’ death, urging prosecutors to more aggressively seek bail denials for defendants accused of serious gun crimes, as well as for sex offenders or people on parole or on pre-trial release for other crimes. It’s unclear if this guidance would have changed the results of Black’s pretrial assessment, leading to him being held without bail.
Civil rights groups have advocated for similar changes to bail systems in various states and jurisdictions, and the issue has attracted support from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
Critics of money bail argue that it has led to an unconstitutional, two-tiered system of pretrial justice, allowing wealthy people to buy their freedom while poorer, often low-level defendants are left to languish behind bars before any determination of guilt.
Money bail can also heap costs onto poorer defendants and their families, since using a commercial bail bondsman can leave them paying fees even if charges are eventually dropped, or if they are found not guilty at trial.
Beyond the constitutional concerns, proponents of bail reform claim that the system fills jails at a great cost to taxpayers. On any given day, nearly 450,000 people are awaiting trial in jails across the U.S. Many face low-level charges, and are only locked up because they can’t afford to pay bail. It costs $14 billion annually ― approximately $38 million every day ― to house these individuals.
New Jersey’s reform has already had a notable effect on the number of people being held in jails. Data released this month shows that the pre-trial jail population has dropped by 20 percent from the same time last year, with nearly 1,500 fewer people awaiting trial behind bars. Although there have been a handful of high-profile instances of defendants re-offending after being released under the new guidelines, there has been no significant increase in violent crime rates, and the measure has largely been hailed as a success.
To bail bonds workers like Chapman and his wife, Beth, who now serves as president of the Professional Bail Agents of the United States lobbying group, the picture is far more dire.
“Two hundred years the bail bonds system has been in effect in America, and for 200 years it has worked,” Chapman said at Monday’s press conference. “All the sudden one state has changed it, and now they’re in chaos.”
Beth Chapman likened the reform to a “hug-a-thug campaign,” and pushed back on the claim that defendants end up getting stuck behind bars just because they can’t afford to bail out.
“The fact is, is that people are not in jail because they’re poor,” she said. “They’re in jail because they broke the law, or they hurt someone.”
To Scotti, the Chapmans’ involvement in the lawsuit indicates the bail bonds industry is willing to throw anything at the wall to see what sticks.
“Even if this is a frivolous lawsuit, even if it has no merit, they got a chance to have a big press conference and get some media attention and say things that are simply not true about the system,” she said. “If they continue to fan the flames of saying bail reform is a failure, that, to them, is a success.”
Read the lawsuit below: