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Advocates worry certain bills will marginalize people of color

Updated: Jun 27, 2023

Critics point out that social-justice bills are stalled, while measures that will effect people of color have no trouble reaching the State House floor

New Jersey lawmakers have pressed on with bills to boost penalties for auto theft legislation, advocates say will disproportionately impact Black and brown communities.

They argue that the bills will promote incarceration, thus affecting nonwhite communities that are involved with the criminal justice system at greater and inequitable rates in New Jersey. And a bill (A-5610) sponsors say is needed to address teens causing trouble at the Jersey Shore will also open the door for Black and brown teens across the state to have more interactions with the police, advocates say.

Meanwhile, key social-justice reform measures haven’t moved since they were first introduced — and have to be reintroduced every legislative session. Bills establishing civilian complaint-review boards (A-1515) or banning the use of chokeholds (A-1370) are some of the criminal-justice measures advocates have been calling for the past few years, since 2020’s racial reckoning, when legislative leaders and Gov. Phil Murphy said they would fully support the social justice movement.

“When (advocates and experts) talk about investing in things like harm reduction services, or educational programs, or restorative justice … (legislators) come up short. But then they always can find a policy to advance more punitive measures. It’s really disappointing,” said Racquel Romans-Henry, director of policy at Salvation and Social Justice.

Which bills move ahead

Advocates say it’s telling which bills are, or aren’t, moving forward this time of year.

A flurry of bills move through the Legislature in the final days of June as lawmakers face a July 1 deadline to approve a new state budget. And this year, they’re also preparing for an extended summer break to ready for their reelection campaigns. All 120 seats in the Legislature are up for vote this November.

“These bills are rooted in a moral panic that’s not borne out. And lawmakers are happy to score political points, even if it means locking up more Black and brown residents,” said Marleina Ubel, police analyst at New Jersey Policy Perspective.

Speaker Craig Coughlin and Senate President Nick Scutari (both Democrats) lead the Legislature and decide what moves forward and what doesn’t. A spokeswoman for Coughlin said there would be no comment on the issues raised by social-justice advocates. Scutari’s office also said he would not comment.

Close, but not close enough

The bills that advocates are concerned about are all at some point where they could be finalized this week. Advocates and some lawmakers plan to rally outside the State House Monday to push for a series of immigrant-rights bills (A-1986/S-512, A-3837/S-2459 and S-241) that have made some progress in the Legislature but do not appear to be part of the numerous policies being voted on during that day’s Senate session.

Advocates are particularly worried about a package of auto theft bills, which they say would “undermine” bail reform in New Jersey. Bail reform was a bipartisan effort led by former Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican. Currently, the legal presumption is that a person will not be detained before a trial unless the charge is a specific crime, including murder or a crime eligible for a life sentence. One of the auto theft bills, A-5189, would eliminate what’s referred to as the “presumption of pretrial release” for those committing certain auto theft crimes.

Wood called this legislation a “slippery slope.”

“We shouldn’t be making changes (to bail reform) based on … the false narratives about where crime is right now (rather than) through a data-driven process,” said Wood. “That’s not the best way of impacting policy that’s going to end up detaining and incarcerating people.”

Legislators that support the auto theft bills point to evidence that auto theft has increased during the pandemic, and this bill is their attempt to to tackle the issue. However, advocates counter that crime is down — and state Attorney General Matt Platkin said so in a recent op-ed for

Car thefts dip

Auto thefts increased from 2020 to 2021, going from 11,770 to 14,405 during the height of the pandemic, as economic hardship gripped the nation. However, state data shows that auto thefts are now trending downward, and they still haven’t reached 2012’s high of 16,471.

“Car thefts and related crimes are an ongoing threat to the safety and security of diverse communities throughout the state,” said Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen), one of the auto theft bills’ main sponsors, in a statement. “It calls for actions to crack down on offenders, to help prevent thefts, and take down the criminal networks of car thieves.”

Wood is concerned, however, that because Sarlo’s auto theft bills increase the penalties for the crimes, people will more likely be detained and incarcerated in an already strained criminal justice system.

“We have judge shortages of case backlogs. So anything that’s going to increase the tension is going to create more case backlogs, there’s going to be more cases, more people are going to be in jail for longer because of the backlogs, because of these judge shortages. And so that’s going to be real costs on the state,” Wood said.

The Legislature, which is controlled by Democrats, is moving forward on bills that Wood, Ubel and Romans-Henry said they were looking forward to passing. A bill to create community crisis response teams is being pushed through, which would fund a noncarceral-based pilot program to respond to certain emergency calls. There’s also a bill to eliminate public defender fees, which criminal-justice experts say only perpetuate cycles of poverty and crime.Regardless of those wins, Romans-Henry said she’s still dismayed that harmful bills are moving forward.

“They’re missing opportunities to really home in on the root causes of some of these issues … and really causing more potential harm to communities. We know that the application of law is not equal,” said Romans-Henry.

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