Report: New Jersey Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Prisons are Worst in the Nation

October 19, 2021

New Report From The Sentencing Project Shows Black Residents In New Jersey Are Incarcerated At A Rate Over Twelve Times That Of Whites, Higher Than The National Average

Abolish The Drug War Coalition Calls On Lawmakers To Adopt Recommendations Outlined In Sentencing Project Report

TRENTON, NJ - New Jersey continues to have the highest rate of racial disparities in its prison population in the country, with Black residents incarcerated at a rate of 12.5 times that of whites, even as the Black incarceration rate is 19% below the national average, according to a new report by The Sentencing Project. These new statistics represent a continuous increase in racial disparities in New Jersey since the report was last released in 2016. The report also shows that more than half of New Jersey’s prison population is Black and, additionally, the state has the 10th highest Latinx to white racial disparity in the nation. 

“Despite significant reductions in New Jersey’s incarcerated population over the last decade, our state continues to have the highest racial disparities in the country. A Black person in New Jersey is over 12 times more likely to be incarcerated than a white person,“ wrote coalition members. “ It is time for lawmakers to take meaningful steps to right these wrongs. We cannot continue to spend billions of dollars criminalizing Black and brown communities while inadequately addressing the underlying systemic factors that cause ills in our society.”

“There is no time to waste. As New Jersey faces multiple crises, including the COVID-19 pandemic and rising overdose fatalities, among others, policymakers must respond with solutions that directly and intentionally address systemic racism,” continued the coalition members. “This includes the recommendations included in the Sentencing Project report--eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for all crimes, building on New Jersey’s existing racial impact statement policy by requiring them to be prospective and retroactive, and decriminalizing  drug offenses.”

"New Jersey's prison population leads the nation in terms of racial disparity. Black residents in New Jersey are incarcerated at more than 12 times the rate of whites,” said Ashley Nellis, Ph.D. Senior Research Analyst with The Sentencing Project. “New Jersey has adopted some of the harshest crime policies, including those that needlessly imprison people for drug offenses. A remedy worth pursuing in this state is the decriminalization of low-level drug offenses." 

The Sentencing Project report comes on the heels of a new report from New Jersey Policy Perspective (NJPP) that found police spending in New Jersey outpaces investments in health and human services, and a first-of-its-kind report showing disturbing numbers on the economic and social costs of New Jersey’s drug war over the last decade. Additionally, New Jersey is facing an overdose crisis, with overdose deaths on track to exceed those of the previous four years. 

In order to address racial disparities in the state’s prisons, advocates across New Jersey are calling on the state to:

  • Eliminate mandatory sentences for all crimes. Mandatory minimum sentences, habitual offender laws, and mandatory transfer of juveniles to the adult criminal system give prosecutors too much authority while limiting the discretion of impartial judges. These policies contribute to a substantial increase in sentence length and time served in prison, disproportionately imposing unduly harsh sentences on Black and Latinx individuals. 
  • Require prospective and retroactive racial impact statements for all criminal statutes. The Sentencing Project urges states to adopt forecasting estimates that will calculate the impact of proposed crime legislation on different populations in order to minimize or eliminate the racially disparate impacts of certain laws and policies. Several states, including New Jersey, have passed ‘racial impact statement’ laws. However, New Jersey has failed to regularly require racial impact statements for proposed legislation. To undo the racial and ethnic disparity resulting from decades of tough-on-crime policies, however, states should also repeal existing racially biased laws and policies. The impact of racial impact laws will be modest at best if they remain only forward looking. 
  • Decriminalize drug offenses. Discontinue arrest and prosecutions for drug offenses that often lead to the accumulation of prior convictions, disproportionately affecting communities of color. These convictions generally drive further involvement in the criminal legal system.
  • Advance and invest in harm reduction policies and programs. Punitive approaches to mental health crises and drug use have served to criminalize New Jerseyans in need of services and support, and drive mass incarceration. Research-backed policies and programming must be advanced to support those who need it as decriminalization is put into place.
  • Rein in police power and expand community-driven public safety solutions. Racial disparities in arrests and police work continue to drive criminal legal system contact, especially for New Jerseyans of color. Building transparency and accountability through increased access to disciplinary records, empowering strong community oversight of police, restraining deadly force and banning chokeholds, and eliminating qualified immunity are first steps towards reducing the racially disparate harm often caused by police encounters.

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ABOUT ABOLISH THE DRUG WAR NEW JERSEY
Abolish the Drug War coalition is a call to action to end the drug war. We denounce the criminal justice approach to what should be a public health issue. We are working to confront and dismantle the systems and policies that contribute to and sustain the drug war in New Jersey, which is effectively a war on Black and Brown communities.

Get in contact:

Members of Abolish the Drug War New Jersey include: Salvation and Social Justice; New Jersey Policy Perspective; New Jersey Harm Reduction Coalition; ACLU-NJ; Institute of the Black World 21st Century; Latino Action Network; Faith In New Jersey; Newark Community Street Team; National Center for Advocacy and Recovery for Behavioral Health (NCAARBH); Reimagining Justice; Paterson Healing Collective; 1906 New Highs; and Doctors for Cannabis Regulation.

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