New Jersey’s prison population continued its decline this year, and the state continued to lead the nation in releasing prisoners, the result of reforms involving drug crimes, mandatory sentencing, and parole.
The state Department of Corrections counted 19,453 offenders in state adult and youth facilities, halfway houses, and re-entry programs as of January 2 of this year, a decline of almost 1 percent from 2017. Since 2011, the prison population has dropped by close to 23 percent; it is down about 38 percent from its peak of 31,493 in 1999. These figures do not include those held in county jails for minor offenses, which The Sentencing Project — a group that supports sentencing reforms and alternatives to incarceration — estimates at 15,235 in 2016.
Advocates working to reduce the prison population say the decline, which The Sentencing Project indicates is the largest in the nation, say that New Jersey should be applauded for its efforts but more needs to be done.
“Any downward trend is a good trend,” said Alexander Shalom of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey. “While there has been a significant decline over the last eight years, when compared to the numbers from several decades ago, the population is still significantly higher.”
Data from The Sentencing Project shows that New Jersey’s state offender population totaled fewer than 5,600 people in 1980.
Casualties of the war on drugs
Shalom attributed much of the steep rise over the 1980s and 1990s to the war on drugs. Zero-tolerance policies and mandatory sentences led to the nearly 600 percent increase in those incarcerated. For instance, the Drug Free School Zone law New Jersey enacted in 1987 was found by studies in the mid-2000s to have had a devastating effect on minority populations in cities, where most of the population lived within 1,000 feet of a school. Shalom said that the loosening of mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses is one of the factors contributing to the drop in the number of people imprisoned. In 2010, then-Gov. Jon Corzine signed a bill eliminating the three-year mandatory minimum penalty for drug distribution or intent to distribute in those zones, giving judges discretion in imposing penalties.
Nicole Porter, director of advocacy at The Sentencing Project, said another important factor in the state’s successful decarceration effort involves reforms to the parole system. Rather than automatically revoking a person’s parole for a violation — which could include failure to check in, failing a drug test, or loss of a job or home — the parole board has used community-based alternatives, including mental health and drug treatment services to assist parolees when possible.
“That’s been essential in helping the state decrease its incarceration rate,” she said. “If the parole system is guided toward connecting parolees with community services, then the culture around parole can help prevent recidivism and lower corrections admissions … New Jersey’s experience should serve as a model for other states.”
Making a successful transition
Alexandra Altman, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Corrections, cited several other factors, including the increased use of drug courts that divert people into treatment rather than send them to prison; a rise in inmates earning high school equivalency diplomas and taking vocational or college classes while incarcerated to help them succeed on release; and an expanded array of re-entry services. The DOC’s Office of Transitional Services offers a number of programs to help offenders make a more successful transition to living outside prison.
“The NJDOC also prepares inmates for reentry by encouraging parent-child relationships while they are incarcerated through programs,” Altman said. “Additionally, the Essex County Reentry Pilot Program offers a Staying Connected initiative that is designed to assist soon-to-be-released inmates with educational services, employment, healthcare, housing, anger management, and life skills training.”
She said the DOC is also offering a new post-release employment initiative “designed to eliminate socioeconomic inequalities often encountered by those released from custody.” The Pre-Release Employment Navigation and Reentry Program provides inmates with additional employment readiness and support prior to their release date by connecting offenders with employment navigators who help with finding jobs, completing job applications, and submitting resumes.
Every county in the state has seen its share of the state prison population decline since 2011, from a low of 2 percent in Cape May to a high of 46 percent in Hunterdon. Over the past year, however, seven counties sent more offenders into the corrections system than in the prior year. For example, the number of people from Cumberland County incarcerated or in halfway houses or re-entry programs increased by 7 percent from 2017 to 2018.
Shalom said the state must do even more to reduce the prison population, citing data from the Prison Policy Initiative, an organization working against mass incarceration, that shows if New Jersey were a country, its total rate of incarceration — including state prisons, county jails, federal prisons, juvenile facilities, and civil confinement — would exceed that of all but seven countries, including the United States and Russia.
“If the war on drugs taught us anything, it’s that we can’t incarcerate our way out of crime problems,” Shalom said. “If you want to solve the problem of crime, you do it not by incarceration, but by getting people jobs.”