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NJ Needs To Invest In People – Not Lock Them Up, Advocates Say

A wave of "tough on crime" bills are scheduled for hearings in the state Legislature. But will they make New Jersey safer?

By Eric Kiefer, Patch Staff

Posted Fri, Feb 10, 2023 at 3:37 pm ET|Updated Fri, Feb 10, 2023 at 8:06 pm ET

The New Jersey Institute For Social Justice is among several advocacy groups that have been sounding the alarm about a wave of “tough on crime” bills scheduled for hearings in the state Legislature. (Shutterstock)

NEWARK, NJ — “Invest in people, not in locking them up.” This was the plea from a New Jersey advocacy group on Friday ahead of several proposed “tough on crime” bills that are scheduled for hearings in the state Legislature next week.

The Newark-based New Jersey Institute For Social Justice (NJISJ) was among several advocacy groups that have been sounding the alarm about a “rash of backward-thinking bills” working their way through the lawmaking process. The group says the bills they’re opposing include S2284, S3006, S3345, S3389, S3390, S3096, S3325 and A5034.

According to the NJISJ: “These bills increase penalties and crime classifications for acts including drug possession, burglary (violent crime has been decreasing) and auto theft (which has also been declining). What we don’t see are needed bills to invest in our communities with creative and proven programs to support young people and adults and keep them out of the criminal justice system in the first place.”

“New Jersey’s criminal justice system already has the worst racial disparities in the nation for incarceration, with Black youth 18 times more likely to be locked up than white youth even though they commit most offenses at similar rates, and Black adults 12 times more likely to be incarcerated than white adults,” the NJISJ said.

“The last thing we need is to make things worse,” the nonprofit added, urging New Jersey residents to reach out to their representative and tell them to “vote no on bad on crime bills.”

The NJISJ isn’t the only social justice group that has been saying it’s time to put the brakes on the flood of crime bills in the Statehouse.

In December, the ACLU of New Jersey and more than two dozen other New Jersey-based groups submitted a letter to the members of the state Senate and Assembly, “strongly opposing” a wave of legislation that they say will “roll back successful criminal legal reforms and lead to the mass incarceration spike seen in the 1980 and 1990s.”

Read the full letter here.

“While there have been increases in some types of crime nationally and in [our state], New Jersey’s crime rate increase remains smaller than the national average,” they said. “What this shows is that too often, fears about public safety are not grounded in accurate, complete data.” The ACLU-NJ held up a proposed law that seeks to roll back bail reform in the state – sponsored by two Democrats – as an example of “tough on crime” legislation that isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

According to the ACLU, if the bill is passed, it will “lead to an explosion in the number of presumptively innocent people jailed before trial, fuel mass incarceration, and exacerbate the already stark racial disparities in New Jersey’s prisons and jails.”

“Here are the facts: ‘tough on crime’ policies aren't based on evidence, data or justice,” the ACLU-NJ said. “They rely on biased and inaccurate claims, as well as long-exploited racial tropes, for political gains at an enormous human cost. Sadly, candidates, police, and politicians are exploiting concerns about safety to undermine proven, evidence-based policies that would address these very concerns.”

“Instead of bringing back tough on crime bills that have already demonstrably failed, we must do the hard work of having honest and open discussions about why people are committing certain crimes instead of more unnecessary criminalization,” the group added.

Trenton-based Salvation and Social Justice also panned the wave of "tough on crime" bills that are currently before the Legislature.

"On Monday, the Legislature will hold hearings on several bills that, if passed, will undoubtedly roll back criminal legal reforms that advocates across the state have worked tirelessly to achieve," the group stated.

"These policies are not based on data or evidence," Salvation and Social Justice members continued. "Nor are they rooted in any deep commitment to justice or public safety. These policies are driven by the exploitation of legitimate concerns through fearmongering and racially biased narratives. These policies will not keep our communities safer. These policies will not solve the problem. In fact, these policies are a large part of the problem."

A recent Gallup Poll reported that a “record-high” 56 percent of U.S. residents think that crime rates have gotten worse in their local area over the past year. Currently, 73 percent of Republicans say crime in their area has risen, while 51 percent of independents and 42 percent of Democrats say the same, pollsters said.

That includes New Jersey, where lawmakers have been launching a flurry of bills aimed at cracking down on crime, including car thefts.

New Jersey officials reported 14,320 car thefts in 2021 — a 22 percent increase over the prior year. So far this year, 13,849 vehicle thefts have been reported, state police said in November.

State police have also said they are taking a close look at what they call New Jersey's “CorrStat Region,” a 19-mile stretch of Rt. 21 that connects Paterson and Newark. There are 80 northeast New Jersey towns in that CorrStat Region, including Newark. In 2021, the CorrStat Region accounted for 63 percent of the state's total motor vehicle thefts. And car theft in that region is up 31 percent so far in 2022, police said.

However, the reporting of crime statistics is a notoriously subjective process, which is easily manipulated depending on how you define “crime,” the location and the period of time you’re analyzing, The Marshall Project recently noted:

“Nationally, what we know from both FBI data reported by police, and from an annual federal survey that asks about 240,000 people whether they personally were victims of crime, is that violent and property crimes have both been on a steady decline since the early 1990s. Murders did increase at a troubling and dramatic rate nationwide in 2020, and have remained elevated, but murder is the least common form of violent crime. Overall, violent crime has remained roughly static since 2010, following decades of decline.”

Other reports have claimed that the overall crime rate has fallen over recent years. According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, sexual violence has fallen by half in the last 20 years (the organization notes that there is still much work to be done, with someone in the U.S. being sexually assaulted every 68 seconds).

In 2020, FiveThirtyEight reported that Americans are “terrible” at estimating their risk of being victimized by crime:

“Crime rates do fluctuate from year to year. In 2020, for example, murder has been up but other crimes are in decline so that the crime rate, overall, is down. And the trend line for violent crime over the last 30 years has been down, not up. The Bureau of Justice Statistics found that the rate of violent crimes per 1,000 Americans age 12 and older plummeted from 80 in 1993 to just 23 in 2018. The country has gotten much, much safer, but, somehow, Americans don’t seem to feel that on a knee-jerk, emotional level.”

So what about New Jersey?

A criminal defense attorney’s office recently took a look at national FBI data, finding that New Jersey had the fifth-lowest rate of violent crime in the United States behind Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and Connecticut.

On average, across the nation, 398.5 violent crimes were committed per 100,000 people in 2020. In New Jersey, that rate was just 195.3 violent crimes per 100,000 people, the Law Office of Jorge Vela reported.

Some Garden State cities and towns have reported statistics in line with these findings.

In 2021, Newark’s former public safety director said that during the last three years, the city has seen the lowest number of murders in six decades. Violent crime ticked upward in New Jersey’s largest city last year and auto thefts were up 18 percent – due largely to “drivers leaving their vehicles running and unattended.” But property crimes were down in every other category, with drops in burglaries, thefts from auto and other thefts.

Nearby in Essex County, West Orange officials announced earlier this year that the crime rate has reached a 41-year low, crediting some of the gains to more “community policing” and a new program, where trained mental health clinicians are called upon to respond alongside officers on certain crisis calls, which may not be criminal in nature.

Find the original article here.

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