Why is the N.J. prison population shrinking?

10/04/2017
By Ted Sherman | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

TRENTON—The big house is getting smaller.
 
Fewer people are going to prison in New Jersey these days and the numbers continue to drop, according to an analysis of state Department of Corrections data over the past five years.
 
Those incarcerated in New Jersey—including men and women in prison, juveniles in detention, and detainees still in halfway houses—dropped this year to 19,619, from 21,123 in 2013. That marked a decline of more than 15 percent.
 
In fact, the state's inmate population has fallen more from its peak in the 1990s than any other state in the country, according to The Sentencing Project, a Washington-based criminal justice reform group.
 
Since 1999—when more than 31,000 people were behind bars in New Jersey—the number of inmates has plunged by more than a third.
 
"New Jersey leads the nation in prison population reduction," said Todd Clear, a prison policy expert at the Rutgers School of Criminal Justice.
 
The big drop
 
Crime has been going down in New Jersey in recent years. But that doesn’t really tell the story of what's happening in the state's prisons, according to Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project.
 
"It's not necessarily one shift that can produce a shift of this magnitude," he said, attributing much of it to the creation of the state's drug courts that focus on diverting people from prison, as well as changes in the parole system that make it less likely someone will be put back behind bars for minor technical violations of their parole.
 
The corrections department data underscores the impact on how the state treats drug crime. The percentage of those serving time for drug crime is down more significantly than for inmates convicted of any other offense.


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