Cities, rural counties have highest incarceration rates in N.J., study finds

By: - June 16, 2022 7:02 am

Cities and small, rural counties had the most disproportionate incarceration rates in New Jersey, according to a new study by the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice and the Prison Policy Initiative. (Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)

While New Jersey cities continue to send the most people to prison, some of its most rural counties have disproportionately high incarceration rates, a new study says.

About half of the people now imprisoned in New Jersey come from its cities — Newark, Camden, Paterson, Trenton, Jersey City, Atlantic City, and Elizabeth, according to the report, released Thursday by the New Jersey Institute of Social Justice and the Prison Policy Initiative.

That might seem unsurprising, given cities have more people, more crime — and more police, especially in their low-income neighborhoods and communities of color.

But researchers also found high incarceration rates in some of the state’s smallest counties, including Cumberland, Cape May, and Salem.

Henal Patel is director of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice’s democracy and justice program. Reformers already know some of the factors that contribute to higher incarceration rates in cities, such as over-policing, Patel said.

"New Jersey has the highest black-to-white racial disparity in incarceration in the country, where a Black adult is over 12 times more likely to be incarcerated than a white adult," Patel said. "This data shows exactly where people are coming from, exactly what communities are being over-policed — and it's Black communities, more than any others."

More research is needed to determine what's driving disproportionate incarceration rates in rural counties, she said.

"This report lets us now ask these questions and get to the root causes of these things so that we can better address them, and we hope the Legislature and other lawmakers think about that too," Patel said.

The study includes data on people locked up by county, city, town, zip code, legislative district, census tract, and other areas. Among its other findings:

  • Every county and state legislative district in New Jersey has some of its population in prison.
  • Big differences persist in incarceration rates between neighborhoods, often along racial and socioeconomic lines (residents of Newark's Belmont neighborhood are four times more likely to be imprisoned than those who live in the adjacent University Heights area).
  • Statewide, 170 out of every 100,000 residents are behind bars. But incarceration rates vary widely by where people live, from a high of 444 per 100,000 people in Cumberland County to a low of 28 per 100,000 people in Hunterdon County.

Researchers hope advocates, policymakers, community activists, and others will use the data to improve reentry, diversionary, and mental health programs and examine how incarceration correlates to other indicators of community well-being, such as poverty, employment, life expectancy, and more.

Source: Prison Policy Initiative

Patel said the study was only possible because of redistricting reform. A 2020 state law banned what’s known as “prison gerrymandering” and required prisons to count incarcerated people by their hometown, rather than where they’re incarcerated as they were previously counted.

Prison gerrymandering gives disproportional political clout to areas — typically overwhelmingly white and more rural —  where prisons are located, at the expense of more urban areas with more diverse demographics. New Jersey is one of more than a dozen states and 200 local governments that have ended prison gerrymandering, according to the institute.

Sophie Nieto-Muñoz contributed to this story.


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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.