The Ultimate Paradox: NJ Leads the Nation in Reducing Its Prison Population While Also Having the Worst Racial Disparities in the Country

Human Rights

Last month, The Sentencing Project released a fact sheet on U.S. prison population trends between 1999 and 2015. New Jersey is at the top of the list for having achieved the greatest reduction in our prison population in the country—a 35 percent decline since 1999.

Reducing the number of individuals behind bars is critical to ending mass incarceration. And while New Jersey should be proud of its accomplishments, we must also remember where else we come in first, and not in a good way.

New Jersey has the worst racial disparities within our prison population in the country. Meaning, that despite the significant decline in the number of people who are serving a sentence behind bars in New Jersey, these individuals are still disproportionately people of color. African Americans only account for 13 percent of New Jersey’s population but are over 61 percent of the prison population. 

Unfortunately, the same holds true for confined youth in the juvenile justice system in New Jersey. Between 1997 and 2010, the total population of confined youth in the state declined by 53 percent. However, despite this significant reduction, New Jersey ranks third in the nation for having the worst racial disparities among confined youth—Black youth are 24.3 times more likely to be committed to a secure juvenile facility than their white counterparts.

New Jersey should build on its leadership in criminal justice reform by addressing the significant racial disparities in our juvenile and criminal justice systems. The New Jersey Legislature agrees. Last month, it sent a bipartisan bill with overwhelming support, to Governor Christie’s desk specifically designed to address racial disparities in our justice systems.

If signed into law, Senate Bill 677 / Assembly Bill 3677 would authorize racial and ethnic impact statements (REIS) for proposed criminal justice policies. These statements are similar to fiscal impact statements and assist policymakers in detecting unforeseen policy ramifications before moving forward with legislation.

Take for example the Drug-Free-Zone law in New Jersey. This law is an example of one that would have greatly benefited from a racial and ethnic impact statement at the time of its passage. In 2005, the New Jersey Commission to Review Criminal Sentencing found that 96 percent of those incarcerated under the law were African American or Latino.

Because of the way the drug-free zones were set up, to overlap and cover most of the areas in densely populated urban centers, those most likely to get the harsh mandatory minimum established under the law were people of color. While the legislature did eventually reform this flawed law, a REIS could have provided information about this potential effect prior to the passage of the bill.

Our criminal justice system has produced profoundly unequal outcomes across racial groups, despite policies that are race neutral on their face. Higher stop, search, arrest, conviction and sentencing rates for African American and Latino Americans are not reflective of increased prevalence of drug use or sales in these communities.

These disparities involve historical customs and practices in law enforcement and the criminal justice system that exacerbate structural inequities by focusing on urban areas, lower-income communities, and communities of color. REIS can help assess disparities at various stages of the criminal justice process to reveal discriminatory outcomes, whether purposeful or not.

It is easier to prevent a problem than to fix one, and Senate Bill 677 / Assembly Bill 3677 attempts to do just that. I am hopeful that Governor Christie will see it that way too.

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