Although the number of people incarcerated in New Jersey has decreased since 1999 (when it peaked at five times the 1978 level), the total stands today at four times the 1978 number.6 Further, the population in our jails and prisons does not reflect the diversity of the population as a whole. And it is the racial disparities in our prison populations that are most disturbing. Nationally, African-Americans make up 13% of the population but 40% of those in prison.7 In New Jersey, the difference is even more striking: African-Americans make up only 14% of the population but comprise 61% of those in prison. That is, African-Americans are incarcerated in New Jersey at a rate more than 12 times that of Caucasians. This level of racial disparity is the highest in the nation.8 Even in the juvenile justice system, where the state has made progress in decreasing the number of children behind bars, large disparities remain. African-American youth are 30.6 times, and Latino youth are five times, more likely to be committed to a juvenile facility than are white youth.9
The causes of these disparities are many, among them policing practices, prosecutorial decision making, and sentencing bias. African-Americans are more likely to be arrested for breaking certain laws than are Caucasians. Consider marijuana possession: nationally, in 2010, 34% of Caucasians and 27% of African-Americans reported using marijuana during the previous year. But in New Jersey, African-Americans were 2.8 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites, and in six counties (Hunterdon, Ocean, Monmouth, Warren, Salem, and Mercer) the arrest disparities were higher than the national average, which tells us that African-Americans are 3.7 times more likely to be arrested than Caucasians.10
Furthermore, putting more people behind bars is not an effective law enforcement strategy. Recent studies show that sending large numbers of people to prison or jail does not make us safer; rather, the rate of incarceration has a minimal impact on the commission of property crimes and essentially no impact on the commission of violent crimes.11
Crime rates are lower in New Jersey and elsewhere, not because of incarceration rates, but because of aging populations (older people commit fewer crimes), increased graduation rates and employment, decreased alcohol consumption, and policing methods based on data used to identify crime patterns and target resources.12 For example, situational crime prevention strategies (such as adding lighting, cleaning up graffiti, and razing abandoned buildings) produce “larger and longer-term crime prevention benefits” than arresting offenders or putting more police in crime hot spots.13 Perhaps most revealingly, in 2014 (the most recent year for which statistics are available), violent crime in New Jersey was at its lowest rate since 1969, and the overall crime rate was at its lowest point since 196314—both before the “get tough on crime policies” were implemented.
Indeed, research demonstrates that the disproportionate number of people of color15 caught up in New Jersey’s criminal justice system stifles social and economic progress and destroys families and neighborhoods, resulting in an increase in crime. Those who are incarcerated—a preponderance of them young men of color—are often from economically poor urban areas where their absence affects the economic vitality, the mental and physical health, and the family stability of the entire community.16 Rutgers professor Todd Clear hypothesizes that high rates of incarceration increase crime because “high rates of removal of parent-aged residents from poor communities set off a series of effects that destabilize the capacities of those communities to provide informal social control[s]” which limit delinquency.17 In other words, communities actually become less safe when incarceration rates are high.
And mass incarceration is expensive. New Jersey Department of Corrections spending more than quadrupled from 1985 to 2015, to $1.07 billion from $241.4 million.18 The high costs to taxpayers of a system that provides such minimal benefits are difficult to justify.