Op-Ed: Parole Reform Would Make Our Communities Safer

Shennell McCloud | November 25, 2019 | Opinion
Large numbers of people are languishing in New Jersey’s prisons even after their basic sentences have been met
Shennell McCloud

As of just a few years ago, New Jersey had a higher incarceration rate than all but six nations, and was roughly on par with Rwanda (a nation living in the aftermath of genocide). The vast majority of New Jerseyans in prison were people of color. New Jersey’s prison disparity was the highest in the nation — a 2016 report found that black residents were 12 times more likely to be incarcerated than whites.

This criminal justice crisis spurred state leaders to enact commonsense reform. Forty percent of those jailed in New Jersey were being held because they couldn’t afford to pay “often nominal amounts of [cash bail],” but in 2017, New Jersey implemented bail reform, which led to a 35% drop in the state’s prison population. This was a critical step in the right direction for a state that had lost its way when it came to effective criminal justice policy.

In this legislative session, elected leaders in Trenton have an opportunity to dramatically reduce the number of people held in our prisons, by passing parole reform legislation.

Before we go any further, here’s a quick primer on criminal sentencing procedure: Sentences are typically given as a range of years that a convicted person can serve. The point of having a basic — or minimum — sentence is to provide an incentive. If a convicted person behaves well during their time in prison, and shows real signs of rehabilitation, they can be released earlier than if they don’t.

That’s the way it’s supposed to work. But today, more than 40% of incarcerated residents in New Jersey max out their sentences, leaving them sitting in prison when they could be re-entering, and contributing to, society. Instead of leaving prison and returning to their families, huge numbers of New Jersey’s incarcerated individuals are languishing in prison even after their basic sentences have been met.

Senate Bill 761/Assembly Bill 1986 would allow for the release of low-risk individuals from prison after they have completed their basic sentence, if they have not committed serious disciplinary infractions while they’re in prison, and provided that they participate in rehabilitation programs.

Use the parole system the way it was intended

Passing this bill will help make our communities safer, because using the parole system the way it was intended leads to more successful re-entry. The parole system is meant to function as a transition back into society. Using part of a convicted person’s sentence on the parole process means a gradual, supervised re-entry. Low-risk offenders who serve less of their sentence in prison are also less likely to reoffend.

Passing this bill will also save a tremendous amount of taxpayers’ money. New Jersey has among the highest costs per inmate in the country, at more than $60,000 per year. In total, the state spends more than $40 billion annually on its prisons. Passing parole reform would lead to a significant reduction in the state’s prison population, saving us millions in state funding. That’s money that could go toward better funding for our schools, improved mental health services, or community policing — all of which would further reduce our prison population by better addressing the root causes of crime.

The bill previously passed both the Assembly and Senate, but was vetoed by Gov. Christie. In this session, the Senate passed its version 27-11. The Assembly Appropriations Committee finally advanced the bill on Nov. 14, positioning it for final passage before the end of the legislative session. It needs to be sent to Gov. Murphy’s desk so that he can sign it before the end of the year. If not, the bill will start back at square one — and thousands of New Jerseyans will remain behind bars unnecessarily.