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Gov. Murphy to Continue Criminal Justice Reform EffortsFrancis A. Kenny

Over the last two decades, New Jersey has become a trailblazer in criminal justice reform.  New Jersey’s prison population has been reduced by a staggering 26 percent since 2000, and crime has fallen by 30 percent.  Not only has the state reduced its prison population, its recidivism rate is also lower than the national average – 31 percent in the state, compared with 40 percent nationally.  For some time, criminal justice reform has been considered a noble bi-partisan cause in New Jersey political circles, and many governors and legislators, both Democrat and Republican alike, can take credit for the change. 

During his tenure in the statehouse, Governor Jon Corzine greatly expanded the use of drug courts to divert addicts to treatment programs.  His administration also drastically cut back on sending former inmates to prison for minor parole violations.  Governor Chris Christie followed in Corzine’s footsteps by expanding New Jersey’s drug courts to accommodate an additional 1,000 people over the course of two years.  Under his guidance, New Jersey became the first state to make drug court mandatory for first-time, non-violent offenders. 

Then in 2017, New Jersey’s Legislature made national headlines when it passed a comprehensive bail reform bill intended to create a “fairer and safer” criminal justice system by moving New Jersey from a financial resource-based system to a level-of-risk-based one.  Prior to 2017, all individuals arrested in New Jersey were given monetary bail.  Those individuals who had monetary resources, regardless of their risk to the general public, were able to buy their freedom and await trial, while those defendants who were lower-risk but lacked financial resources were forced to languish behind bars while awaiting trial.  Some reports found that almost 40% of the individuals being held in New Jersey jails were there solely because they could not afford to pay often small amounts of bail. 

After a careful review of the state’s pre-2017 bail system, New Jersey Supreme Court Justice Stuart Rabner explained  “The existing bail system is not fair to poor defendants who, because they cannot post bail, are cut off from families, may lose their jobs, and may go without access to medication for a period of time. In terms of the charges against them, studies have shown that they face tougher plea offers and pressure to plead guilty because of the amount of time they have already spent in jail, and they receive longer sentences as compared to similarly situated defendants who were able to make bail.” 

The legislation that eventually passed made sweeping changes.  First, it mandated that anyone who is issued a complaint and arrested must receive a risk assessment within 48 hours, followed by a hearing with a defense attorney present.  At that time, a judge must either release that person or hold him or her, based on risk.  The legislation also increased the types of offenses for which summonses are to be used instead of arrests; thereby keeping more people out of the system altogether.  For certain offenses, police officers must now seek permission before making an arrest.  These measures effectively reduced the pre-trial jail population by 20 percent in one year.

More recently, five former New Jersey Governors-- Jon Corzine, James E. McGreevey, Brendan Byrne, Thomas Kean, and James Florio-- built on the reform momentum with a report that recommended the establishment of a vocational pilot program that would provide former prisoners with “industry-valued credentials.”  Instead of sending recently freed criminals back into the traditional education system, participants could attend a vocational program and graduate with training in a specific industry.

In keeping with the progress made by his predecessors, New Jersey’s newly-elected Governor Phil Murphy has promised to vigorously pursue various criminal justice reforms.  The reforms promised on his campaign website include, among other things: (1) creating a commission that will examine laws like mandatory minimums; (2) fully implementing bail reform that is designed to end cash bail in New Jersey; (3) expanding body cameras on police officers; and (4) expanding services to help people getting out of jail adjust to life on the outside. 

Undeniably, the reform measure that has garnered the most attention is Murphy’s plan to legalize recreational marijuana use statewide, which is based in part on seeking to eliminate low-level drug offenses.  During his inaugural address, Murphy explained: “A stronger and fairer New Jersey embraces criminal justice reform comprehensively, and that includes a process to legalize marijuana.”  

Murphy’s plan to legalize marijuana takes into account the fact that, despite years of undeniable progress, New Jersey still incarcerates minorities at a far higher rate than whites.  Notably, in New Jersey you are three times more likely to be arrested and convicted for marijuana possession if you’re African American than if you’re white.  According to Amol Sinha, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, legalizing recreational marijuana would help fix “a racial justice issue and a civil rights crisis” because the war on drugs is disproportionately targeting black New Jerseyans.

Despite the fact that Democrats hold a majority in both the State Assembly and State Senate, Murphy’s plan to legalize marijuana for recreational use is facing opposition from both sides of the aisle.  While the future of recreational marijuana use may be uncertain, one thing that is certain is New Jersey’s continued commitment to criminal justice reform.