ACLU-NJ Unveils Vision for Shrinking Mass Incarceration

December 13, 2017

ACLU-NJ's plan would overhaul the criminal justice system top to bottom, from arrest to parole

The mass incarceration crisis arose from a range of causes, and solving it calls for a range of solutions – which is why the ACLU-NJ has released an ambitious Vision to End Mass Incarceration in New Jersey. The vision breaks down the steps that could lead New Jersey prisons and jails to see their population shrink by nearly 20,000 people.

“No single cause is responsible for our mass incarceration crisis, and no single solution can end it – but a combination of smart policy changes can,” said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Amol Sinha. “This vision unravels the chains of mass incarceration one strand at a time. Our prisons and jails need to shrink, and that means deliberate policy changes to stop putting people in cages. Too many communities have suffered, and too many people of color have lost their futures. It’s time for this slow-motion American tragedy to end.”

Mass incarceration is one of the defining civil rights crises of our era. New Jersey in particular has the worst racial disparity in the imprisonment of Black and white individuals, with Black New Jerseyans arrested at a rate 12 times higher than white New Jerseyans, according to The Sentencing Project.

The vision, authored collaboratively by more than a dozen ACLU-NJ staff members over the course of more than a year, lays out a plan for dramatically reducing the prison and jail population, from stopping unnecessary encounters with police by decriminalizing low-level offenses to removing barriers that have made parole much rarer than in the past. Some, like strengthening bail reform, make intuitive sense; others, like increasing the minimum wage, take a more holistic approach.

The vision puts forth a range of policy reforms small and large:

  • Full implementation of New Jersey’s historic bail reform
  • Marijuana legalization and ending arrests for other low-level offenses
  • Changing the culture of prosecutors and judges to consider alternatives to overzealous prosecution and jail sentences
  • Increasing the minimum wage
  • Fixing the parole system and ending arrests for minor violations of parole
  • Compassionate release of elderly people
  • Expanding re-entry and credits for time served
  • Parole reform, including new parole board standards

“We need to undo the web of policies that turned our country into the biggest jailer in the world. This report is a roadmap for starting on that work here in New Jersey,” said ACLU-NJ Pratt Criminal Justice Transparency Fellow Portia Allen-Kyle. “We can’t just end mass incarceration – we have to take it down brick by brick, with the same thoroughness that created it. We have to reconceive criminal justice in New Jersey inside and out, from arrest to parole.”

New Jersey has long been a pioneer in criminal justice reform. Jan. 1 marks the one-year anniversary of our historic pretrial justice reform ending money bail going into effect, and Dec. 17 marks the 10-year anniversary our state’s abolition of the death penalty. While New Jersey has seen recent declines in its incarcerated population, our state’s prison population has increased 278 percent from 1975 to 2015.

The ACLU-NJ is working with Newark’s Aljira gallery to stem mass incarceration through its exhibit “The Missing,” which captures the human toll communities face as a result of disproportionately criminalizing people of color, especially young Black men.

“The only way to close the Pandora’s Box opened by tough-on-crime policies is to reject the mindset at the heart of them, which has failed in deterring crime and in bringing about justice” said ACLU-NJ Deputy Legal Director Jeanne LoCicero. “That means reconsidering what we consider a crime, rethinking how severely a person should be punished, and enabling people to build meaningful, rich lives after prison.”

The national ACLU’s Campaign for Smart Justice plans to release blueprints for decreasing the prison populations of all 50 states, including a blueprint for New Jersey in 2018.

The ACLU-NJ’s Vision to End Mass Incarceration in New Jersey can be read online.

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