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Incarceration in New Jersey: The Impact of Reform

While considering solutions to complicated criminal justice issues such as the staggering amount of outstanding arrest warrants for low level offenses, court violations, and traffic matters, one can seek inspiration from the valiant efforts of advocates and innovators across the State of New Jersey. Whether the motivators for change are fiscal burdens or moral imperatives, collective efforts of committed professionals, active community members, and engaged legislators can create a momentum for social action and seismic shifts in social policy and practice. Consider two monumental changes in criminal justice practice; the reduction of the state prison population and the implementation of bail reform.

For decades, the United States has led the world in incarceration rates. The US has seen a 500% increase in the use of incarceration over the last 40 years and racial disparity is evident in every step of the criminal justice system from arrest to sentencing. New Jersey was no different at the earliest stages of mass incarceration. It had a 359% increase in its prison population from 1980 to 1999; when it reached its peak at nearly 32,000. However, due to a significant overcrowding issue and fiscal crisis, alternatives to incarceration were created by the New Jersey Department of Corrections. Through a public/private partnership with non-profit community providers, both the New Jersey Department of Corrections and the New Jersey State Parole Board created an infrastructure of residential community release programs and day reporting centers for adult offenders that significantly impacted the prison population.

The Reentry Coalition of New Jersey reports that in 1998, 41% of prison admissions in New Jersey were incarcerated for technical parole violations such as drug use or other non-criminal violations of their parole conditions. Without community alternatives, parole officers were quick to remand non-compliant offenders to the deepest, most expensive end of the system. Compounding this unsound practice was the unlikelihood that the offender would be able to access treatment or assistance for the underlying reason for his or her behavior.

In 2008, drug court expansion afforded New Jersey another alternative to combat mass incarceration. New Jersey Department of Corrections monthly statistical reports have documented these trends. By 2016, the number of adults in state prison for drug offenses was reduced by half. With the introduction of community-based programs and the expansion of drug court alternatives, New Jersey achieved a 31% reduction in its prison population by 2014. This decrease continues. In 2018, New Jersey’s prison population was less than 20,000 which represents a 37% reduction. This refocus on reentry and rehabilitation not only saw a massive decrease in the prison population but a decrease in New Jersey’s crime rate too.

However, New Jersey has not stopped. In March 2013, Luminosity; nationally recognized criminal justice data experts, in partnership with the Drug Policy Alliance released an analysis of New Jersey’s jail population. On any given day, New Jersey jails held approximately 15,000 people. Jails are not the same as prisons. Jails are designed to hold inmates in custody who are sentenced to less than a year or who are awaiting trial. Individuals sentenced to more than 365 days are remanded to State prison. New Jersey was a state where all defendants had the right to be released on bail. Often, people were languishing in jail for low level offenses simply because they lacked the financial resources to be released on money bail. The jail population analysis confirmed that three-fourths of the individuals in jail were actually awaiting trial and of those, nearly 40% were eligible to post bail but could not afford it. Twelve percent of the jail population was being held because they could not make a $2,500 or lower bail to secure their release. Most shockingly, it was revealed that approximately 800 inmates held in custody could have been released for $500 or less. Individuals who had been indicted and were awaiting trial had been in custody on average 314 days and more than half of the pretrial population was there for a non-violent offense.

On August 11, 2014, Governor Christie signed historic comprehensive bail reform legislation into law after considerable advocacy and public debate. On November 4, 2014, New Jersey voters passed Ballot Question #1 enacting reform that took effect January 1, 2017 rejecting the current status of jails as de facto debtor’s prisons. Bail reform legislation changed the landscape of the criminal justice system by (1) declaring non-monetary pretrial release the default option for the majority of defendants; (2) establishing a pretrial services agency in each county to supervise low-risk individuals who are released pending trial; (3) mandating the use of a validated risk assessment tool when evaluating individuals for release; (4) permitting preventative detention of truly dangerous individuals; and (5) guaranteeing timelines for a speedy trial. The passage of comprehensive bail reform legislation means New Jersey will see a fairer, safer and more effective bail system by allowing the supervised pretrial release of low-risk individuals who do not threaten public safety. With this reform comes the hope to serve those individuals with chronic mental illness and substance abuse issues who frequently cycle through our county jails.

A 2018 report from Acting Administrative Director of the Courts Judge Glenn Grant demonstrates that criminal justice reform is working to reduce New Jersey's jail population. The report to law makers states that NJ jails saw a 20% reduction from January 1, 2017 to January 1, 2018 and a 35% reduction from January 1, 2015. As part of the speedy trial mandate of criminal justice reform, the report revealed that 81.3% of people were processed and released within 24 hours and 99.5% within 48 hours.

Inspired by vast changes in the criminal justice system and the desire to do more for the individuals in their communities, local municipalities are also tackling outstanding warrants. For example, the Atlantic City Municipal Court is highly committed to assisting citizens in resolving warrants as evidenced by their monthly participation in an outreach event at the Atlantic City Bus Terminal. They have been working with community partners and law enforcement since 2015 to help people resolve outstanding warrants. Individuals with outstanding warrants in Atlantic City municipal court can address outstanding bench warrants, suspended driver’s licenses, and unpaid fines and tickets through this open venue. This collaboration of community providers with the municipal court affords access to information and referral beyond criminal justice matters including referrals for housing, drug and alcohol treatment, and other resources. Implementation in other municipalities across the state are possible.

Atlantic City Warrant Operation 2017

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