June 2016: Criminal Justice and Corrections

Perspectives from the Field, Part IV
Throughout the 2016 seminar year, the LNJ staff  will ask two class members to reflect on their experiences following the monthly two-day seminars. The perspectives will change each month to include a wide spectrum of view points and expertise.

For more information visit our website at http://www.leadnj.org/.
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2016-06-08 11.54.56(Princeton University- Lewis Science Library)

LeadNJ 2016 Criminal Justice and Corrections Seminar
June 8
-9, 2016
Princeton, NJ 
By: Sidney Hargro

Is it Soup or is it Soap? We have the power of filling in the blank.  Although I have visited prison facilities prior to the June LNJ seminar, the emotional impact of seeing predominately black faces peeking from beyond dimly lit cells stacked four stories high was daunting. A recent report, The Color Of Justice: Racial And Ethnic Disparity in State Prisons, indicates that the gap between incarceration rates of blacks and whites in New Jersey is greater than any state in the U.S.

For some, this visual fosters a perception that men of color and particularly black men are disproportionately criminal.  As an African American male, I have had first hand experience of this bias leading to racial profiling and unjust interactions with law enforcement. But, why is there such disparity?

On the second day of the seminar, speaker James Johnson, board member of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, offered insight that no doubt plays a pivotal role.  He presented an idea that in my mind encapsulates the dilemma facing people of color and the American justice system. On a slide, he showed the following word puzzle:

SO_P

The LNJ audience immediately inserted the vowel of their choice.  Practically in unison, I heard “soup” and I heard “soap.”  Depending on our perspective and bias with no additional information or experience with the puzzle, we filled in the blank. We completed the story. For people of color, and even more so those who live in poverty, the day often begins with a subconscious if not conscious concern that those who cross their path in the public square will fill in the blank with an untrue and unfair portrayal of them and their capability. The higher rate of arrest and incarceration, as well as a disparity in length of sentence by race, validates these concerns. This bias is quite evident in the recent sentencing of Brock Turner, a white male, to six months in prison for the rape of an unconscious woman behind a dumpster. He is likely to serve three months of the sentence. Judge Aaron Persky chose to fill in the blank with a positive portrayal of a convicted sex offender.  It took weeks for law enforcement to release his mug shot to the public, opting instead for the clean-cut portrayal of Turner dressed in a suit.  Since the sentencing, there have been countless examples in the media of men of color who received harsher sentences for lesser crimes.

This is why the community policing strategy presented by James Golden, retired director of the Trenton Police Department, is so critically important. Community policing creates and nurtures relationships between law enforcement and community residents.  These relationships have the power to mitigate biases, establish strong bonds, and ultimately “change the blank.” When the stakes are high and humanity is being monitored, investigated, accused, or judged by our law enforcement and criminal justice system, choosing “soup” or “soap” can change the course of a life forever. Those who are in positions of power and given the authority to complete the puzzle have the responsibility to assure that their perspectives and biases do not obstruct fairness and justice for all.

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IMG_3766(LNJ ’16 at the Princeton University Lewis Science Library)

Lead NJ –  Criminal Justice and Corrections Seminar
June 2016
By: Beth McCarter

I woke up the morning of Wednesday, June 8 with a bit of nervous anticipation.  For me, the seminar on Criminal Justice and Corrections was the seminar that had most piqued my interest when I researched the Lead NJ program prior to applying.   The seminar is punctuated by a visit to the New Jersey State Prison in Trenton, a maximum security prison with over 2,000 inmates.   I had heard colleagues who are members of past Lead NJ classes talk about the impact this seminar had on them, and still has on them to this day.  That morning, I carefully selected my attire, following strict instructions on the dress code for the prison, and set off for Princeton University, where the seminar would commence.

Newspaper headlines including phrases like “mass incarceration”, “bail reform”, “drug court” and “community policing” are ubiquitous, and I headed into our seminar not feeling as well versed on these topics as I should be.  We heard from a myriad of speakers over the course of our two days at Princeton University.  We spent our first morning hearing first from Bruce Stout, a criminologist and Associate Professor at the College of New Jersey.  I’m going to spend some time highlighting Bruce’s comments as I felt they provided a great overview of the New Jersey Criminal Justice System and touched on a number of topics that were covered in more detail later in our session.  Bruce’s discussion provided the class with a walk through the recent history of crime and imprisonment, specifically in New Jersey.  In the 70’s, there were just over 6,000 criminals in prison in the state.  Changes in the law led to mandatory sentencing and less flexibility around parole.  There was a movement toward deinstitutionalization, so many mentally ill patients ended up in prisons rather than in places where they could get rehabilitation.  Addiction was criminalized rather than treated as a public health issue.  As a result of all of these things, the prison population in New Jersey peaked at 31,000 after the turn of the century.  The increased prison population coupled with the cost to keep a prisoner in jail ($50,000 per year currently) drove expenses for the state Department of Corrections to an all-time high.  Starting around 2006, there was recognition that mandatory sentencing around certain crimes wasn’t as effective as the certainty of punishment in deterring crime.  There was also recognition that the efficacy of imprisoning people without rehabilitation was least effective as a safety measure.  The implementation of drug courts, more flexibility for parole officers to reduce sentences when appropriate, and the expansion of halfway houses aided in the reduction of the prison population to around 21,000 today.

We head from Joseph Krakora, New Jersey Public Defender, on the bail reform legislation that will go into effect in January of 2017.  In the current system, when bail is set, those with money can “purchase their freedom” while those without financial resources remain in jail until they’re indicted.  Essentially, the new legislation changes the decision about pretrial release from a “money based system” to a “risk based system”.  Rather than setting monetary bail, the risk based system will use a variety of inputs about the individual to determine whether pretrial release is appropriate (i.e. low risk individuals who do not threaten the security of their communities).  While this new approach will save the municipal jails significant money, there will be new costs in implementing this reform, and many questions remain on the net costs to the system.

There seems to be recognition by a number of experts that policing in the community must change.  We’ve all read the horrible stories of police abuse and brutality in certain communities.  A panel discussion around this topic featured James Golden, Retired Director, City of Trenton Police Department, James Johnson, Board Member, New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, and Joseph Delaney, Deputy Chief, Jersey City Police Department.  To me, it seems like a large cultural shift driven by strong leadership is needed in order for real change to take place.   It is evident that there is much work to be done.

The Honorable Ramy Eid of Jersey City Municipal Court in Jersey City as well as Wayne Wirta, NCAD-NJ, addressed the merits of Drug Courts in New Jersey.  This is a complicated topic, and I found myself thinking of Bruce Stout’s earlier remarks about the criminalization of addiction.  What is the best way to treat a drug offense?  Data shows that Drug Courts can reduce recidivism as they provide addicts with treatment and hold them accountable.  However, skeptics site lack of resources and ineffective treatment and question the recidivism data.

Clearly, there is a lot of movement and change taking place in our Criminal Justice system both here in New Jersey and beyond.  My head was spinning, as it usually is during our Lead New Jersey sessions.  All of these conversations provided some context for Wednesday afternoon’s visit to New Jersey State Prison.   Stepping out of the bus and looking up at the curled barbed wire atop the high concrete walls put all of the conversations we’d had about our criminal justice system into perspective.  We were about to see the system in action.  I looked around at my classmates and wondered if I was the only one feeling anxious.  Officer Rivera, one of the more senior guards at the prison, stepped onto the bus to welcome us.  She reviewed the rules for our tour and provided us with instructions on what to do if there was an issue.  She reminded us that this was a maximum security prison, with many of the prisoners’ sentences being greater than twenty years.  We followed her into the building, curious about the experience we were about to have.

We were greeted by a number of security guards that work each day to keep order in the prison.  After going through an x-ray machine, we were separated into two groups, and I followed our assigned guide, Officer Mallette, into the prison.

My first observation was that I was surprised by the number of guards that were on staff during our tour.  I felt as though there were guards behind every door we walked through or corner we turned.  This is all for good reason, at a maximum security prison, these individuals are an integral part of keeping order and watching for things that may seem out of place that could signal danger.   I began to understand the manpower it takes to keep a place like the NJ State Prison running, as well as why it’s so expensive to house a prisoner.  These officers get up each morning, knowing they face possible violence and a tough work environment every day.  My respect for this group of individuals grew the more I learned about their job.

We had the opportunity to walk into a small cell shared by two prisoners while the prisoners were somewhere else in the prison.  Part of me felt guilty for invading their space, but at the same time I felt that based on the awful crimes that many of these prisoners committed, they didn’t deserve much, if any, privacy.

Officer Mallette showed us the library where younger prisoners can obtain their GEDs and prisoners have access to Lexis-Nexis.  We ended our tour in the Chapel, where two prisoners were brought in to speak to us about their lives in the prison.  One of the prisoners is in charge of the NAACP chapter at the prison and the other leads the Veterans group in the prison.  Both seem to find purpose in leading other prisoners and working to make a difference.  As I heard their stories of rehabilitation, I found myself flirting with sympathy for these individuals.  Ultimately, though, I couldn’t shake the thought of the hurt they’ve caused so many people.

The two day seminar lived up to its reputation of being extremely educational, both in the classroom and in our interactions at the prison.  I found myself thinking through the opportunities and challenges that lie within our criminal justice system as I left Princeton.  I speculate these thoughts will stay with me, long after I arrive home.

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