The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Chris Christie claimed a reform was ‘good government.’ A grieving mother says it killed her son.

Former bail bondsman Duane “Dog” Chapman, far left, and his wife, Beth Smith, join the family of Christian Rodgers and the family’s lawyers as they announce a wrongful-death lawsuit in New Jersey. (Bruce Shipkowski/AP)

Jules Black’s feud with Christian Rodgers ended abruptly in April, in a hail of gunfire.

Shortly after he’d gotten out of jail, Black found Rodgers on a street in Bridgeton, N.J., drew a handgun and opened fire, police and court documents say.

Rodgers tried to sprint to safety but was struck anyway. Black fired at him 22 times, police say.

Officers responding to reports of a drive-by followed a trail of blood and found Rodgers behind a home, bullet-riddled and dead, his mother’s lawyer said.

Black is in jail on a murder charge; his attorney maintains his client’s innocence.

Since her 26-year-old son’s death, June Rodgers has focused her anger on New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) and the state’s newly overhauled bail system.

Black, a felon, had been jailed April 5, accused of illegally possessing a gun. But he was back on the streets within a day because of changes to the state’s bail law, June Rodgers said — and her son is now dead because, she said, New Jersey’s method of determining who gets out of jail before trial is flawed.

Rodgers is suing the governor, the state’s attorney general and the inventors of a bail risk assessment tool that determined that Black was a low risk to society before he allegedly killed her son. Her lawsuit seeks wrongful-death damages and an injunction against the bail law, which went into effect in January.

“I’m thinking more people should get up and speak out, because this is not right,” she said at a news conference outside the U.S. District Court building in Trenton, the Daily Journal reported. “I don’t understand for the life of me how anyone can say it’s okay the way the system is.”

It took 10 minutes to convict 14-year-old George Stinney Jr. It took 70 years after his execution to exonerate him.

She was joined at the news conference by Duane “Dog” Chapman of “Dog the Bounty Hunter” fame, who criticized the state’s “dangerous, fake reform” and railed against the bail-law changes, which could destroy the industry that made him a reality TV star.

“Christie should be ashamed of himself,” the former bail bondsman said, according to HuffPost. “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.”

The lawsuit — funded by Nexus, a company that connects people arrested for immigration offenses with bail bondsmen — raises questions about a new, analytics-based system to help judges determine who is released from jail. The public-safety assessment is the foundation of an aggressive overhaul in New Jersey and is also being considered in a growing number of cities and states.

Christie and other supporters say it is a fair and fiscally responsible way to determine who needs to remain in jail pending trial. Critics claim the algorithm is flawed and threatens to flood the streets with violent or habitual offenders.

“It’s a catch-me-if-you-can approach to a situation while people are dying or significantly injured by a program that needs to be shelved,” said Mario Williams, an attorney for June Rodgers. “You’re trying to cut costs and allegedly save taxpayer money and brag about that while violent criminals are being let out.”

New Jersey’s bail-setting system had been in place since before the Revolutionary War, according to New York Magazine. The state’s constitution required bail to be set for everyone charged with a noncapital crime as leverage for defendants to show up for court. That meant all crimes were eligible for bail because the state no longer has the death penalty.

But those who supported the bail overhaul say New Jersey’s system was riddled with problems. Low-level, nonviolent offenders who couldn’t afford cash bails languished in jail for weeks or months. The lost time cost them jobs, strained their families and was a burden for taxpayers, the critics of the old system said.

A disproportionate number of people who couldn’t make bail were poor and/or minorities. And the old system was inefficient, Christie and other change advocates say, costing taxpayers millions to keep defendants locked up when there was little risk of them skipping trial.

A sex offender was released on parole. Weeks later, authorities say, he raped a 7-year-old girl.

A philanthropic agency set up by a former hedge fund manager tried to fix the system.

The initiative was led by former New Jersey attorney general Anne Milgram, who was hired to develop a risk assessment algorithm to determine the likelihood that an arrested person would return for their court date, as well as the odds that they’d commit a violent crime while out. Now, 38 jurisdictions use the Laura and John Arnold Foundation’s public safety assessment, including three states — Arizona, Kentucky and New Jersey.

“I wanted to introduce data and analytics and rigorous statistical analysis into our work,” Milgram said in a TED talk about the tool. “In short, I wanted to ‘Moneyball‘ criminal justice.”

In addition to using the algorithm, New Jersey’s bail overhaul is based on the notion that most offenders don’t need to be jailed or even given bail to make sure they meet a court date.

Some receive a phone reminder or electronic monitoring. The assessment system gives recommendations, but in the municipalities that use them, final decisions about bail or monitoring rest with a judge.

A number of advocacy groups and experts say the new system is fairer — and cheaper.

“If you’re incarcerating people for failure to pay fines and fees because they can’t make bail, it’s unnecessarily expensive,” said Nancy Fishman, a project director at the Vera Institute, a nonprofit policy research organization.

The change was also viewed as a fiscally conservative measure. That’s what Christie argued when he successfully lobbied legislators to enact overhaul legislation.

Christie’s office and the state’s attorney general declined to comment for this article, citing the Rodgers family’s lawsuit. But the governor talked about the broad support in 2014, after a committee appointed by the chief justice of the state’s Supreme Court studied the bail system and gave its nod to the changes.

“This is good government,” Christie said at the time. “It’s supported by Republicans and Democrats. It has united our state Supreme Court and urban mayors. It has brought together an incredible cross section of advocacy groups in New Jersey.”

Chris Christie enjoyed a closed beach, then got flamed. But he definitely did not get a tan.

In August 2014, 53 of the state’s 69 senators voted for it across party lines.  Later that year, 61 percent of New Jersey voters approved a constitutional amendment that allows judges to deny bail for the most violent offenders. Together, the measures made New Jersey’s bail overhaul one of the nation’s most aggressive.

Of the 10,193 cases processed in New Jersey through the first three months of this year,  judges set bail eight times, according to the Marshall Project. Another 1,262 people were held without bail because judges believed they were too risky to release. Most were released on a written promise to appear. Others were ordered to be electronically monitored.

It’s unclear how much money the bail-system overhaul has saved taxpayers this year.

But the clear losers in the revamp were the hundreds of bail bondsmen in the state, who suddenly faced a vacuum of customers and an industry collapse.

Chris Blaylock, a second-generation bail bondsman and the founder of, said people in his industry are angry that they “were never given a seat at the table” during reform discussions.

He said the movement to get rid of bail does not adequately address repeat offenders who prey on communities.

“These are people with sexual assaults, with firearms charges, with many priors, getting out with zero accountability,” he said.

The president of Police Benevolent Association Local 231, which represents officers in Bridgeton, said the reform effort has been exploited by career criminals. Under the old system, corrections officer Victor Bermudez said, those criminals would spend more time in jail and less on the streets.

Now, Bermudez told The Post: “I’m seeing the same exact people every week. I’m just seeing them come in with new charges. It’s more work for officers. It’s a lot more work for them.”

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In Christian Rodgers’s case, there’s no way to know whether Jules Black would have been able to simply bail himself out of jail on his gun charge under the old system, said Roseanne Scotti, state director of the New Jersey chapter of the Drug Policy Alliance, which led a consortium of groups in favor of the overhaul.

Under the old system, a judge would have been required to set bail after Black was arrested on the gun possession charge. And there was a chance that he could get out if he had the money or worked out a deal with a bondsman. And no one would be able to control Black’s actions once he was free.

“Bail bondsmen do not follow their clients around 24 hours, seven days a week,” Scotti said. “Really, they have nothing to do for you unless you don’t come back to court.”

She conceded that the new system has flaws, but said, “No system is going to be 100 percent risk-free. But you can’t compare the current system to perfection. You have to compare it to the old, imperfect system.”

On Monday, a tearful June Rodgers said her son’s death cannot be ignored. And, she said, New Jersey’s new system should not be called a success.

“I keep hearing how they say this has been ‘a success,’” Rodgers said. “This was successful at giving me an opportunity to lay across my baby’s casket, crying my eyes out.”

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