New Jersey has chosen to lock up people at a rate that does not make anyone safer, costs the state billions of dollars, and results in disproportionate burdens on many of our families and communities.
The scale of incarceration in the United States and in New Jersey is staggering. With only 5% of the world’s inhabitants, the U.S. has the world’s largest prison population, both in absolute numbers1 (almost a quarter of the prisoners in the world) and as a percentage of the population.2 And New Jersey has a higher incarceration rate than all but six nations.3 These data reflect policies that accept imprisonment alone as a goal of the criminal justice system. “Mass incarceration” is the term we now use to describe high rates of imprisonment, particularly among “young, African-American men living in neighborhoods of concentrated disadvantage.”4 This paradigm does not work for anyone.
Transforming the criminal justice system in New Jersey into a fair and effective system will require rethinking everything from policing strategies upfront to release and rehabilitation at the end of the criminal justice pipeline, and making practical changes. The premise should be that incarceration is the last resort, not the first response. The money we spend to confine so many New Jerseyans could be used for public investment in other important areas that support human and economic growth, such as education, housing, and health.5
This report offers recommendations that embody sound public policy and are informed by a consensus that mass incarceration is not a reasonable or appropriate model for a system of criminal justice. Our recommendations will not address the collection of injustices that result in mass incarceration or redress all its consequences. But combined with retaining improvements already underway, specifically, New Jersey’s landmark bail reform effort, the report recommends feasible and affordable policies that will put the state on a path toward a more equitable and effective criminal justice system.