Criminal Justice Reform in New Jersey: New Solutions Campaign

Over the last 15 years, New Jersey has reduced its prison population, crime rate and recidivism rate and has become a national leader in criminal justice reform. Despite this success, there is still more work to be done. DPA is currently working on bail reform implementation, parole reform, racial and ethnic impact statements, and asset forfeiture reform.

New Solutions Campaign

DPA created the New Solutions Campaign in 2008 in response to New Jersey’s then out of control prison growth. Since then, DPA has successfully led the advocacy efforts to pass both drug free zone reform and bail reform in New Jersey.

DPA continues to advocate under our New Solutions Campaign for policies that address the unacceptable and counterproductive consequences of mass criminalization in New Jersey.

Bail Reform Implementation

In 2014, DPA led the campaign to successfully pass bail reform in New Jersey. The legislation took effect on January 1, 2017 and has already significantly improved New Jersey’s old broken bail system, resulting in a more than 35% drop in the state's jail population. The new law creates a fairer and safer criminal justice system by moving New Jersey from a resource-based system to a risk-based one.

Prior to January 1, 2017, all individuals arrested in New Jersey were given a monetary bail. Those individuals who had financial resources, regardless of their risk to public safety, were able to buy their freedom and await trial in the community, while those defendants who were lower-risk but poor, were forced to languish behind bars while awaiting trial.

A report DPA commissioned in 2013 found that almost 40% of the individuals being held in New Jersey jails were there solely because they could not afford to pay often nominal amounts of bail.

What’s included in the new law?

  • Judges now make decisions about pretrial release based on an evidence-based, validated risk assessment tool. Although the risk assessment does not replace the courts’ discretion, it is a valuable tool that helps inform judges’ decisions.
  • Individuals who are released pending trial may be released with conditions such as daily or weekly check-in calls, in-person check-in meetings, or GPS monitoring.
  • A new statewide pretrial services agency within the New Jersey Judiciary monitors defendants’ conditions of release.
  • Judges are allowed to detain dangerous individuals without bail, but only after a hearing that adheres to due process standards.
  • Those individuals detained pretrial are guaranteed a speedy trial to protect their rights.

DPA is working hard to safeguard and defend the historic victory of bail reform and to ensure its effective implementation. DPA is a member of the Pretrial Services Program Review Commission that was established under the law.    

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Parole Reform

New Jersey’s parole system is broken. More than 40% of those who are incarcerated “max out” their sentence—meaning they are released without the support and supervision needed to successfully reintegrate into their communities. 

The decision about when a person is released after they serve their basic sentence is often arbitrary, ineffective and not in the best interests of the individual or the larger community. Incarcerating a low-risk individual after they have completed their basic sentence wastes taxpayers money and reduces their chance of successful reentry and reintegration into the community upon their release. 

The overuse of incarceration tears apart vulnerable families and communities. These unfair and ineffective policies disproportionately impact New Jersey’s most vulnerable communities. While African Americans and Latinos make up less than 30% of the state’s population, they account for more than 80% of those who are incarcerated. And racial disparities in New Jersey prisons are the highest in the nation.

DPA is currently advocating for Senate Bill 761 / Assembly Bill 1986, which allows for the release of low-risk individuals from prison after they have completed their basic sentence, provided that they commit no serious disciplinary infractions while incarcerated and participate in rehabilitation programs. The bill passed the legislature with bipartisan support but was conditionally vetoed by Governor Christie. We will continue to advocate for this important legislation until it becomes law..

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Racial and Ethnic Impact Statements

New Jersey has the worst racial disparities within our prison system in the country. People of color are far more likely to be stopped, searched, arrested, prosecuted, convicted and incarcerated for drug law violations than are whites – even though rates of drug use and selling are comparable across racial lines.

These disparities are the result of historical customs and practices in law enforcement and the criminal justice system that exacerbate structural inequities by focusing on urban areas, lower-income communities and communities of color.

DPA successfully passed legislation that would create a fairer criminal justice system by requiring Racial and Ethnic Impact Statements (REIS) from policymakers proposing new legislation.

What can we do with REIS?

  • Assess the potential effects of a proposed policy on racial and ethnic disparities.
  • Predict disparities at various stages of the criminal justice process to reveal discriminatory outcomes, whether purposeful or not.

Such statements are similar to fiscal or environmental impact statements, and are generally understood as a factual, unbiased tool to inform the legislature as they decide whether or not a particular bill should be enacted.

Governor Christie signed Senate Bill 677 / Assembly Bill 3677 in January 2018, thereby creating the strongest REIS legislation in the country. The legislation went into effect in August 2018, and DPA continues to monitor its implementation.

Civil Asset Forfeiture

Civil asset forfeiture laws allow the government to seize cash, cars, real estate or other property suspected of being connected to criminal activity. Under federal law, as well as many state laws, including New Jersey, property can be seized and forfeited even when criminal charges are never filed against a property owner. By contrast, criminal forfeitures occur against a person after conviction for an underlying criminal offense.

Civil asset forfeiture raises several concerns over individual civil liberties and property rights. Because it occurs within a civil context, none of the constitutional protections that typically apply in a criminal proceeding are provided to property owners. Property owners are forced to navigate a complex legal process to get their property back and, more often than not, owners, especially low-income individuals, choose not to challenge the seizure because it is too cumbersome and expensive to do so.

Civil asset forfeiture laws also create profit incentives for law enforcement. Because agencies are able to keep the proceeds of the seized property once it is forfeited, agencies have increasingly turned to seizures to compensate for budgetary shortfalls.

Such perverse incentives can cause law enforcement to over-enforce crimes that carry the possibility of forfeiture, most predominantly minor drug offenses, to the neglect of other, more important law enforcement objectives that actually impact public safety.

DPA is currently advocating for Senate Bill 1963Assembly Bill 3442 to address the significant data gap in what we know about civil asset forfeitures in New Jersey by establishing comprehensive reporting requirements for all law enforcement agencies within the state. Once passed, DPA will monitor the reports to assess what further reforms are needed in New Jersey.

Featured Resource

Civil Asset Forfeiture Executive Summary