New Jersey Prisons Have the Highest Rates of Racial Disparity in the U.S, Report Finds

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East Jersey State Prison. Wikimedia Commons.
East Jersey State Prison. Wikimedia Commons.

New Jersey prisons lead the nation in incarceration gaps between whites and Blacks, according to a new report by the justice reform non-profit, The Sentencing Project.

African-Americans in the Northeastern state are locked up at a rate 12 times that of whites, the report says, making it one of only five states in the country (Iowa, Minnesota, Vermont and Wisconsin) with a ratio higher than 10 to 1.

An analysis of data collected by the Bureau of Justice Statistics and U.S. Census revealed that the Garden State is among a dozen states whose Black inmates account for more than half the prison population.

African-Americans make up 15 percent of the state population but 60 percent of the prisoners.

Surprising, considering that New Jersey has substantially reduced its prison population since its peak in the 1990s. Thanks to major changes to criminal justice policies in recent years, the state decreased its detainee population by 26 percent — with a 30 percent decrease in Black prisoners — between 1999 and 2012 and has become a model for other states.

In May 2000, three New Jersey inmates filed a class-action lawsuit against the state Parole Board accusing the board of failing to meet state-issued deadlines for the timely preparation of preliminary reports and parole hearings. As part of the 2001 settlement, the board agreed to meet all statutory deadlines and establish a more effective administrative appeal process for past, current and future parole-eligible inmates, court filings show. The action led to a sharp increase in parole approvals and dramatic decline in rates of re-admittance to prison for parole violators, according to The Sentencing Project. Parole approval rates rose from 31 percent in 1999 to 50.1 percent in 2000.

The New Jersey Office of the Attorney General issued a directive to law enforcement officials to curb arrests for petty drug crimes, and the state has implemented rehabilitation programs for low-level drug offenders, allowing them to serve time in treatment facilities rather than prisons.

In August 2014, Gov. Chris Christie signed a comprehensive bail reform bill to overhaul the current pre-trial process. Under the new system, set to go into effect in January 2017, judges are encouraged to consider a detainee’s threat of danger to the community instead of flight-risk, when setting bail amounts. Larger numbers of low-level, nonviolent offenders awaiting trial will be released on their own cognizance, and high-risk defendants will be entitled to a speedy trial, as defined by the state, to avoid excessive stints in jail.

“€The effect (of state-level reform) on African-American incarceration is probably going to take a little longer because the disparity is so severe,” said Ashley Nellis, report author and senior researcher at The Sentencing Project, per NJ.com.

The chairman of the New Jersey Black Caucus said the state’s reported racial disparity was not surprising and could be compounded by the new bail legislation.

“We’re not going to have the resources, so as a result of that, it’s going to create additional problems in terms of people being delayed and staying inside the institutions,” State Senator Ron Rice told nj105. “The process is going to hold them up even more so.”

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