Legislative Open House Focuses On Alternatives To Mass Incarceration

Legislative Open House Focuses On Alternatives To Mass Incarceration

Photo, left to right: State Sen. Ray Lesniak, Chancellor Nancy Cantor, Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter and State Sen. Ron Rice
Rutgers University-Newark hosted its first-ever legislative open house this week where New Jersey lawmakers spoke about criminal justice reform and the need to move away from mass incarceration.

The open house was hosted by the Center for Law and Justice and was a joint program between Rutgers Law School and the School of Criminal Justice.

It was held a week after President Obama came to the Rutgers campus and talked about prisoner reentry programs, citing NJ STEP and other programs in New Jersey as a model for reintegrating ex-offenders into society.

 The legislators, elected officials and community leaders met to discuss strategies for reducing mass incarceration and to listen to the expertise of Dr. Todd Clear, Rutgers Distinguished Professor in the School of Criminal Justice.

“The criminal justice system is broken,” Clear said. “It focuses too much on incarcerating nonviolent offenders.”

He spoke to an audience that included U.S. Rep. Donald M. Payne Jr. (D-10th District), Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter (D-Passaic), and state Sen. Ronald L. Rice (D-Essex), all of whom sponsored the open house. State Sen. Ray Lesniak (D-Union) also attended, along with several Rutgers leaders, including Chancellor Nancy Cantor, Rutgers Law School Co-Dean Ronald Chen, and Shadd Maruna, Dean of the School of Criminal Justice.

Clear said though crime rates have stabilized and even declined, the number of people going to prison – a disproportionately large portion of which are men of color – continues to increase. Because of mandatory drug sentencing, mandatory minimum sentencing laws and a reduction in parole opportunities and diversion programs, more people are going to prison and once they get there, they are staying longer, Clear said. Incarcerating so many adults destabilizes communities by separating parents from their children and by reducing the number of wage earners who contribute to local economies.

He pointed out that nationwide more than 1.5 million people are incarcerated, compared to 200,000 in 1972. Clear argued that prison populations would continue to climb even if prison time was eliminated for technical probation violations and certain drug offenses and if sentence times were reduced to 1988 levels. “We have to change the policies,” he said. “We have to change the system.”

 He said incentives must be made for alternatives to imprisonment, including getting prosecutors and judges to rethink the ways people are punished when they break the law.

Lesniak said New Jersey has reduced its prison population by 20 percent and he supports drug court for offenders who need drug treatment, along with more reentry support for former inmates. Sumter said she looks forward to hearing more about ideas and policies that would move lawmakers away from mass incarceration, “We didn’t come to the legislature to do nothing.”