Pushing Ahead with Reforms to New Jersey’s Criminal Justice System

Final report in ‘Crossroads NJ’ series argues state must address disparities in number of whites and blacks serving time in prison, among other issues

black prisoner
New Jersey’s criminal justice system has been reshaped by several big reforms in recent years, including major changes to pre-trial bail rules and the expansion of drug courts that offer nonviolent offenders treatment and supervision instead of prison. But a new report suggests policymakers can go several steps further to address the mass-incarceration issue and reduce wide disparities in the rates of imprisonment among white and African-American residents.

Recommendations put forward in the report from the nonpartisan Fund for New Jersey include legalizing marijuana, eliminating mandatory minimum sentences, and expanding opportunities for early release from prison.

The analysis of New Jersey’s criminal-justice system also suggests the state restore the right to vote for those serving prison sentences, or terms of parole and probation, and consider reclassifying some minor offenses to help protect undocumented immigrants from deportation.

The report is the last to be put forward by the public-policy-focused philanthropic organization as part of its “Crossroads NJ” series. The organization launched the seven-part series earlier this year, coinciding with the 2017 gubernatorial and legislative elections. But the Fund for New Jersey (which also supports NJ Spotlight) does not endorse any candidates or political parties.

More spending at state level

Many of the recommendations made in prior reports covering issues like affordable housing, transportation, and education would likely mean more spending at the state level. But the report on criminal justice reform suggests the state could realize savings and free up resources for more investment in other areas, like social-service programs, if fewer people were being lodged in state prisons that have become increasingly costly to operate. In all, state spending on corrections has jumped from $241 million in 1985 to over $1 billion in 2015, the report said.

“The money we spend to confine so many New Jerseyans could be used for public investment in other important areas that support human and economic growth, such as education, housing, and health,” the report said.

Although the total number of New Jersey residents who are currently incarcerated has dropped since reaching a peak nearly 20 years ago, the state’s incarcerated population is still four times larger than it was 40 years ago, according to the report. And while African-Americans make up 14 percent of New Jersey’s overall population, they make up more than 50 percent of the state’s prison population, the report said. African-Americans are also nearly three times as likely to be arrested for possessing marijuana in New Jersey than whites, even though more whites generally report using marijuana than African Americans.

One of the report’s recommendations is to legalize the use of marijuana in New Jersey, and to review the effectiveness of criminal statutes that apply to other, low-level offenses.

“Indeed, the enforcement of low-level offenses throughout New Jersey has resulted in aggressive stop-and-frisk practices and numbers-based policing strategies that lead to encounters between the police and the public that are not necessary for ensuring public safety,” the report said.

The report also highlights a nearly 25 percent reduction in the state’s mass-incarceration rate that occurred between 2006 and 2014, crediting things like drug court, bail reform, and other important policy changes for the overall improvement.

Drug courts

Expanded by state law in 2012, drug court helps addicts kick their habits, while reducing the number of nonviolent crimes like burglaries, prescription stealing, and prostitution that are often are tied to drug abuse. Many drug-court participants continue working, live at home, and participate in their communities while under court supervision, allowing them to benefit from the support of friends and family.

The approach is also designed to help avoid problems often associated with long prison sentences, including negative influences from other, violent criminals, languishing work skills, and lingering, untreated addictions. Gov. Chris Christie’s administration has also estimated the costs associated with the drug-court program are about a quarter of what it costs to send offenders to prisons.

Two years after the drug-court program was expanded in New Jersey, voters overwhelmingly passed a constitutional amendment that changed how state courts decide where those accused of a crime spend their time awaiting trial.

Under the bail system, a judge would set a bail amount and a person unable to pay was forced to await trial in jail, while a wealthy person who could afford a bond could go free, regardless of the severity of the crime committed. Under the new bail system, which went into effect at the beginning of this year, it is assumed that alleged criminals will be released without bail — with varying degrees of monitoring — but those accused of the most serious offenses may be detained until their case goes before a judge. Those who are held must be tried within two years in an effort to minimize the amount of time a person must spend in confinement while awaiting trial.

Building on progress

The Fund for New Jersey report called on the state to “build on the gains it has made” in recent years, and also notes that the changes to the new bail system have been the source of controversy and legal challenges.

“The next governor must protect and strengthen the state’s historic reforms,” the report said.

The report also wades into another controversial topic, which is the issue of immigration and how local law-enforcement officers in New Jersey interact with the undocumented immigrant population. Under a directive issued by the state attorney general’s office in 2007, local, county, and state police must inquire about an arrestees’ immigration status in cases involving a felony, or indictable criminal offenses, as well as driving while intoxicated.

But the report recommends taking another look at the attorney general’s directive, suggesting the state would be better served by separating the issues of local policing and federal immigration enforcement to encourage more cooperation between immigrants and the police in the communities they share. It also recommends the creation of an advisory board to help New Jersey’s governor choose instances in which a pardon may help to minimize the impact of a minor offense on deportation cases.

The report also makes a number of recommendations related to the reentry phase when someone is released from a prison after serving out their sentence. They include widening rules related to the expungement of their offenses, and also allowing those on parole or probation to regain the right to vote. The report also recommends that those in prison should also be allowed to vote in New Jersey.
“In a state where African-Americans make up such a disproportionately large share of the incarcerated, denial of voting rights has broad implications,” the report said.