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NJ leads nation in reducing prison population, ACLU says

Dramatic reduction since 2017, but advocates fear new tough-on-crime bills

New Jersey has reduced its overall prison population by more than 50% since 2011 and leads the nation in decarceration, according to a new ACLU study. The ACLU credits bail reforms. “With the reforms came the immediate and direct reduction in the number of people incarcerated before trial — thousands fewer people lost jobs, healthcare, and family connections,” said Alex Shalom, senior supervising attorney with ACLU New Jersey.

Research shows New Jersey prisons held 19,600 inmates in 2017. As bail reforms kicked in, that trended downward, then plummeted dramatically from 2020 to 2022, leaving 12,500 behind bars. Amol Sinha, executive director of ACLU New Jersey, said, “This was done by passing a one-of-a-kind law to release nearly 9,000 people early during the COVID-19 pandemic … We also legalized and decriminalized cannabis, significantly reducing arrests in our state. And bail reform has been a resounding and stable success.” Sinha added, “There’s a lot to be proud of in New Jersey. But we haven’t yet reached our potential.”

Defying popular expectations, the violent crime recidivism rate remained below 1%. “This proves that you can in fact have both safety and justice. You can reduce the number of people behind bars, and be safer and have more healthy thriving communities as a result,” said Insha Rahman of the Vera Institute of Justice.

People of color comprise 15% of the population of New Jersey but account for 60% of its prison population. “It highlights the racial disparities here, and we need to work on the issues which are feeding the system, creating this structurally racist environment,” said Rev. Charles Boyer of Trenton’s Greater Mount Zion AME Church.

Advocates fear new tough-on-crime bills — especially those with mandatory minimum sentences — could threaten the progress New Jersey has made by incarcerating more people for longer prison terms.

“I don’t believe in mandatory minimums. I believe in mandatory service — giving people the services they need to rebuild their lives,” said former Gov. Jim McGreevy. He chairs the board at the NJ Reentry Corporation and on Wednesday helped to cut the ribbon on its 10th facility, in Carteret. It’s a place where people coming out of prison can get back on their feet with career training, job placement, addiction treatment, legal counsel and health care. It also gives services to veterans.

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