Here’s how New Jersey has lowered its prison population. It’s just a start, ACLU says

New Jersey leads the U.S. in efforts to reduce prison populations over the last five years. But there’s still room for change, since Black inmates still make up a disproportionate share of the state’s prison population, according to a recent report from the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey.  

The state’s correctional facilities’ populations fell 45% from 2017 to 2022, according to the report. New Jersey released a higher share of people during the pandemic than other states, largely a result of the Public Health Emergency Credit, which led to the release of nearly 9,000 people.

“This law is one of the most significant modern policies for decarceration in the nation, and the resulting releases marked a groundbreaking moment for public health and criminal legal reform,” said Sarah Fajardo, the ACLU-NJ’s policy director. “It proved that wide-sweeping decarceration in the name of racial justice and with the leadership of impacted people can happen without any impact on public safety — and it made it clear that New Jersey can, and must, go even further.” 

Leaving prison during COVIDFor prisoners freed early during COVID-19, a changed — and sometimes lonely — world awaits

Politicians and others outspoken about their opposition to decarceration — the process of reducing the number of people in correctional facilities, according to the National Institutes of Health — commonly suggest that more violent crime follows releasing or diverting people from prisons. However, the ACLU-NJ found no significant change in violent crime data locally from 2017 to 2022. National violent crime rates fell in 2022.  

Black people make up more than half of NJ prison population

Decarceration isn’t only about lowering prison populations — it’s a racial justice issue for the ACLU-NJ. New Jersey is one of 12 states where Black people make up more than half of prison populations, according to The Sentencing Project.

Corrections officers enter a cell inside New Jersey's Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in a January 2021 incident that has led to criminal charges against 10 corrections staffers. Video screengrab.

Along with the COVID-19 emergency releases, the ACLU-NJ pointed to the following measures that led New Jersey to become a model for the nation in decarceration efforts:

  • Cash bail reform: A law that went into effect in 2017 allowed judges to release defendants before their trial without requiring payment of cash bail. The ACLU-NJ, which advocated for the law, views the change as a success because the pretrial jail population dropped from 9,000 before the reform to just above 5,000 in 2018 and 2019.
  • Cannabis legalization: The ACLU-NJ believes legalizing marijuana “will have a powerful long-term effect” in prison population as well as racial disparity within prisons across the state. Gov. Phil Murphy signed a law decriminalizing and legalizing cannabis in 2021. Before that year, police arrested Black people at rates 3.5 times higher than white people despite similar usage data, according to the report.

The ACLU-NJ report listed several other policies the state can adopt to continue leading the nation in decarceration efforts, including waiving mandatory minimum prison terms, extending clemency considerations and compassionate release. New Jersey has the foundation for decarceration but must reimagine the criminal legal system to continue leading the nation, an ACLU-NJ press release said.

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