In an op-ed published this weekend in the New Jersey Star-Ledger, Arnold Ventures Executive Vice President Jeremy Travis and Senior Advisor to The Sentencing Project Marc Mauer describe how the state’s efforts to keep people in the criminal justice system safe from COVID-19 are reversing long-term trends in prison population growth.
New Jersey’s total prison population has declined by more than one-third since the beginning of the pandemic, and Gov. Philip D. Murphy recently approved the release of more than 3,000 people in order to fight the spread of the pandemic behind bars.
“But it shouldn’t take a deadly virus to know that too many Americans remain stuck in prisons, serving sentences that are unnecessarily long and being denied basic human dignities like privacy and safety,” Travis and Mauer write.
In fact, today’s massive prison populations are a historic aberration more than four decades in the making.
“Incarceration rates have grown four-fold since the early 1970s, creating a cruel pipeline that siphons young men from their neighborhoods into a prison setting that does little to aid their reentry back into society.”
The harms from this mass incarceration fall disproportionately on communities of color while doing little to actually reduce crime rates.
So what should states do?
Travis and Mauer point to policies recommended by New Jersey’s bipartisan Criminal Sentencing and Disposition Commission: ending mandatory minimums, expanding compassionate release, and resentencing people who were assigned multi-decade punishments when they were teenagers.