By Andrew Schmertz
New Jersey is locking up fewer of its citizens and prison reform advocates say the state is leading the country on reducing mass incarceration.
“New Jersey has had a considerable drop in its prison population. Both in the last year, which is news that’s coming out now, but also if you look at longer term trends, New Jersey really leads the nation in terms of lowering its incarceration rate now by about 35 percent since 1999,” said Ashley Nellis of The Sentencing Project.
According to the latest data from the U.S. Justice Department, in 2015, there were about 34,000 people in jails and prisons — down nearly 4 percent.
That was among the nation’s largest drops and was ahead of the national incarceration numbers.
Nationwide, there were about 2.2 million inmates, a decline of 2.3 percent.
The drop in violent crime in the state is a key reason. And advocates say reforms in drug policy contribute as well.
“I think some of it is definitely related to our policies on the way we handle people who have substance abuse disorders and drug offenses and that really goes over a range of different areas, from how we arrest and prosecute people to also how we deal with people on parole and probation,” said Rosanne Scotti, New Jersey director of Drug Policy Alliance.
Prison reform advocates cite one disturbing trend. The Sentencing Project says that racial disparities in New Jersey prisons are among the worst in the nation.
“New Jersey incarcerates blacks at a rate that’s 12 times higher than whites. Which means it’s higher than the national average by far,” Nellis said.
While fewer people are behind bars, more are on probation and parole. And that may be the result of the courts pushing jail alternatives.
“I think that one of the things people don’t look at as much, is the way we handle people once they’re on probation and particularly when they’re on parole. The state parole department has done a great job when working with people who are on parole and not doing things like violating them and re-incarcerating them for minor offenses,” Scotti said.
Bail reform goes into effect Jan. 1 and criminal justice reform is expected to continue next year.
Lawmakers are already considering parole reform, letting those who meet certain criteria get out of prison early.