By Cherri Gregg

TRENTON, N.J. (CBS) — Voters in New Jersey are deciding today on whether to amend the state constitution to eliminate the right to bail in certain criminal cases.

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If approved, the measure will also mean those held in jail have a right to a swift trial.

The purpose of New Jersey’s ballot question #1 is to deal with the hundreds if not thousands of nonviolent defendants sitting in jail simply because they’re too poor to post bail, sometimes for amounts less than $2,500.

“What we’re talking about is a comprehensive bail reform package,” says Alex Shalom, a staffer for the ACLU of New Jersey. The rights group is urging voters to say “yes” to the measure, which Shalom says will give judges the power to deny bail to violent criminals who pose a risk to the community, while at the same time guaranteeing those who are detained a statutory right to a speedy trial.

“It will also result in thousands of New Jerseyans (who are now) being detained pretrail, being released pretrial,” says Shalom.

The Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers of New Jersey opposes the amendment.  The group’s president, Joe Rotella, says bail reform and speedy trial guarantees should not be combined because of politics.

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“We are amending the constitution of the State of New Jersey,” he says.  “That has to be more than a knee-jerk reaction.

Gov. Chris Christie has pushed the bail reforms for more than two years and called a special session over the summer to deal with the issue.

If approved, ballot question #1 would allow the courts to raise fees for monitoring defendants released pending trial.

And even though the amendment, if passed, will not go into effect until 2017, it will cost tens of millions of dollars in 2016 as the state ramps up to monitor those released without bail.

On the other hand, it will save millions long term in costs of jailing nonviolent defendants too poor to post bail.

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