New Jersey, like all states, has mechanisms in place to reduce, as appropriate, the amount of time prisoners actually spend in prison. These mechanisms are aimed at ensuring that offenders serve time in prison that is proportionate to their crimes and not so excessive as to be unjust punishment, result in greater risk of recidivism, and cause greater hardships to affected families.
Credits, parole, and pardons can all help address mass incarceration. Although each of these tools has been available in New Jersey for decades, in recent years, the use of parole release, in particular, has decreased significantly. New Jersey must reverse course: opportunities for early release should be both improved and expanded in order to further reduce the period of incarceration for eligible prisoners.
EXPANDING AVAILABILITY OF GOOD-TIME CREDITS
In New Jersey, prisoners earn credits against their sentence for good behavior. The allotment of credits varies with how much time a person has served. The average number of days taken off annually from a sentence for prisoners serving sentences of 10 or fewer years is 103.89
New Jersey also offers credit for program participation. Prisoners can earn time off their sentences by attending substance-abuse counseling, taking educational courses, or avoiding serious disciplinary infractions.90 However, more inmates want to be in educational, vocational, and therapeutic programs than can be accommodated, with the result that many people do not have the opportunity to earn these credits.91
Also, other states are far more generous in providing credits. Seven states offer some classes of inmates one day’s credit or more for each day in a particular program. Prisoners in those states—Alabama, Illinois, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Texas, and West Virginia, plus DWI offenders in North Carolina—can cut their sentences in half if they are not serving mandatory minimums.92
Expand the availability of programs through which prisoners can earn credits toward release, and increase the commutation credits available to state prisoners.
Increasing the availability of educational, vocational, and therapeutic programs serves a dual purpose by providing credits toward reduced sentences and better equipping offenders to re-enter society.93
INCREASING PAROLE TRANSPARENCY
The standard for granting parole is straightforward and appropriate: release is available unless evidence shows a prisoner “has failed to cooperate in his or her own rehabilitation or that there is a reasonable expectation that the inmate will violate conditions of parole.”94 Despite this clear standard, New Jersey has seen a sharp decline in grants of parole in recent years. From 2002 to 2008, the number of people released from prison every year on parole averaged 7,747. Yet in 2015, only 3,011 people were paroled. Putting aside the decrease in the number of parole-eligible prisoners, the overall number of people coming up for parole has decreased and fewer of those who reach the hearing stage are granted parole. For example, in 2000 there were 16,620 hearings and 49.8% were granted parole whereas in 2015 there were 8,749 hearings and only 34.4% were granted parole.95
In sum, analyzing decisions to grant or deny releases is difficult because New Jersey’s parole system is cloaked in secrecy.96
Make data about parole decisions public.
Published data should be broken down by crime of conviction, race, gender, age, length of sentence, and county of commitment. Personal information should be removed as required by law.
Making data available will increase understanding of the parole determination decisions and will improve accountability within the system.
PROVIDING CREDITS FOR PRETRIAL DETENTION
To promote equal treatment of defendants who are released before their trial and those who are detained, New Jersey allows for the provision of jail credits.97 County jail credits reflect the acknowledgment that a defendant who is detained pretrial suffers in comparison with someone who is released.98 Even with jail credits, defendants who are detained pretrial are at a disadvantage. Because neither commutation credits nor work credits are available to those detained before conviction,99 those defendants who are at liberty before trial stand to serve significantly less time if they are convicted than those who have been detained.
An example is illustrative. Defendant One is at liberty while awaiting trial. He receives a five-year sentence with no period of parole ineligibility. Defendant Two is in jail for one year before he receives the same five-year sentence. He receives 365 days of jail credits in an effort to put him in the same position as Defendant One. But because Defendant One is eligible to receive commutation and work credits for his entire sentence, he ultimately will serve 28 fewer days than Defendant Two.100 The system fails to place detained defendants on an equal footing with those who are released.
Provide work and commutation credits to pretrial detainees.