Annual prison count shows racial disparities persist behind bars
Black people made up 59% of the prison population in latest census
Black people made up 59% of the prison population in the last count, despite representing only 15% of the state's population. (Photo by Darrin Klimek/Getty Images)
Despite New Jersey’s prison population being cut in half over the last 10 years, racial disparities exist at roughly the same rate they did a decade ago, according to the state’s annual inmate count.
The Sentencing Project says New Jersey has the worst racial disparities in prisons in the country, with a Black adult here 12 times more likely to be incarcerated than a white adult. In the state’s latest count, Black people made up 59% of the prison population, while white people made up 22%. Black residents make up 15% of the state’s general population.
“It’s astounding,” said Marleina Ubel of progressive think tank New Jersey Policy Perspective. “Things don’t change, which is causing this disparity, and that impacts Black and brown communities disproportionately.”
Nearly 13,200 people are in New Jersey prisons and halfway houses, according to the report.
The total figure represents a 43% drop in the number of incarcerated people since 2013, with the youth prison population cut by 70%. The biggest drop-off in the prison population was in 2021 after low-risk offenders and people nearing the end of their sentences were released to slow the spread of COVID-19 behind bars.
In 2017, the state overhauled the bail system with the Criminal Justice Reform Act, a bipartisan effort to end a cash bail system that kept low-income people accused of even minor crimes behind bars while they awaited trial because they couldn’t afford to get out.
“I’m certainly critical of some things — but state bail reform was really great, the COVID release program was really great. It’s unfortunate that it seems like we’re going to be moving backwards,” said Ubel, who researches the criminal justice system.
The number of prisoners has ticked up in the last two years as pandemic-era release programs have ceased. Ubel noted that the governor’s budget plan projects another 1,000 people will land in New Jersey prisons by the end of the year.
Yannick Wood, director of criminal justice reform at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, said because incarceration in New Jersey is “deeply racialized,” he worries disparities will remain “stubborn.”
“We’re at the highest number of people incarcerated since the pandemic began, and we have the worst racial disparity in the nation,” he said. “We need New Jersey to lean into policies to reduce detention and incarceration, and to address the root causes of crime. Only then can we begin to address these racial disparities.”
Ten years ago, the prison population was 61% Black, just two percentage points above the current number.
White inmates made up 22% of the prison population in the latest count, while Hispanic and Latino inmates represented 14%, and Asians, 1%. About 4% were categorized as “other.”
The median age of incarcerated individuals was 37 years old, with the largest age group being between 40 and 44 years old. More than 40% of incarcerated people were over 40, and just 1% were 20 years old or younger.
“We have to look at, and do a little bit more work, and figure out why is it that Black individuals are consistently and disproportionately being represented in detention?” Wood said. “We need to talk about how Black individuals are more likely to have negative interactions with officers, the wealth disparities, over-policing, who’s given a warrant versus who’s given a summons — there’s a lot to look at.”
Fewer ‘tough on crime bills,’ advocates say
If New Jersey wants to begin chipping away at mass incarceration, advocates say, the state needs to invest more widely in community programs and avoid passing so-called “tough-on-crime” bills that reverse some of the progress done in the criminal justice reform realm.
“There’s just been a general rhetoric that’s pretty clear that there’s this movement to go back to these tough-on-crime policies that were a huge failure in the 90s. I don’t know why we would want to go back there,” Ubel said.
Recently, Democrats have introduced and advanced bills that would increase penalties for fentanyl possession, upgrade punishment for auto thefts, and redefine burglary to charge someone who breaks into a home but doesn’t steal anything with a second-degree felony. The bills have gained bipartisan support, and some, like the car theft bills, are moving swiftly through the Legislature.
Wood believes those bills would contribute to more young Black people being detained.
“These are the types of bills that tend to increase tension and increase racial disparities. What we want lawmakers to do is legislate on data-driven decisions and statistics, not based on false narratives about crime and using bail reform as the boogeyman,” he said.
Assemblywoman Lisa Swain (D-Bergen), who sponsored two car theft bills, said in March that while she has “compassion for anybody who gets involved in the criminal world, but at the same time, for somebody … not to find their car in the driveway, that’s not acceptable either.”
Wood said what the state needs are initiatives that prevent people from entering the criminal justice system. He pointed to the Restorative and Transformative Justice for Youths program being established in Newark, Paterson, Trenton, and Camden. He also noted that programs like the Paterson Healing Collective and other community-driven organizations are working within their towns to provide the services they see are needed. The Paterson group works with gun violence victims and responds to mental health crises.
“If we really want people to be productive and rehabilitated and we really want to further public safety, we need to look at programs beyond incarceration,” Wood said.
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