Community "decarceration" activists call on State Sen. Rice to introduce legislation supporting large-scale New Jersey prison release

By Mark Bonamo | July 7th, 2014


NEWARK - An advocacy group that believes New Jersey needs a major large-scale prison release, or "decarceration," is calling on state Sen. Ron L. Rice (D-28) to introduce a bill in the Legislature meant to achieve that goal. 

In a letter signed by 14 New Jersey residents, most from Essex County, and sent to Sen. Rice, the signatories point to "systemic racism" in the enforcement, prosecution and sentencing within the criminal justice system as a significant explanation of the disproportionate representation of African-Americans among the prison population. One solution to this problem is to provide a large-scale release of those incarcerated, particularly for non-violent, drug-related and other non-violent offenses that could be seen as economic “crimes of survival," according to the letter's signatories. 

"We are sure you are well aware of the racial and economic disparities of mass incarceration where it is Black, Brown and impoverished who are targeted by everything from arrest, prosecution and sentencing," the letter states. "Mass incarceration devastates our family structures, our community structures and our ability to engage and struggle politically, socially and economically for better communities.  For these reasons it is of utmost importance that our communities take the lead in structuring the kind of decarceration legislation that is initiated and fought for.  We need to take the first step."

The letter calling for the passage of the "NJ Decarceration Act" is being circulated through an on-line petition that the group backing it maintains has 1000 signatories so far. 

The petition specifically suggests provisions for any proposed "decarceration" bill. 

“We call for incarceration reductions of 20% in the first 2 years and 50% over 4 years," the petition states. "The legislation should provide for guidelines of offenses for which prisoners should be released (e.g. nonviolent simple possession charges and small scale economic offenses), guidelines for release of those given particular lengths of sentences who served a percentage of their sentence (e.g. release all those sentenced under 6 months, who have served 50% of a term up to 1 year, have served 70% of 1 – 3 years, 80% of 3 – 5 years, etc) as well as those who are beyond a certain age who served a certain percentage of their sentences. The particulars can be determined with input from communities targeted by mass incarceration. Funds saved must be channeled into providing jobs, training and services for those exiting the prison system.”

The letter's signatories are planning a street panel discussion on the topic later this summer in Newark and invite Sen. Rice to be part of it. The street panel discussion is scheduled for July 30 at 5:30 p.m. outside Newark City Hall, 920 Broad Street, Newark. 

"We are confident in our outreach to Senator Rice that he will realize that if there is ever a Black Agenda issue, an issue that affects the impoverished throughout Essex County, this unjust 'justice' system is it," said "decarceration" advocate Cassandra Dock. 

"I think that there are some non-violent offenders who should be out of jail," Rice, a former Newark Police Department detective, told "I didn't get [the "decarceration" advocacy group's] letter yet, but I'll look at it when I get it. I'll listen to what they have to say, because even [Gov. Chris Christie] has talked about non-violent offenders being removed [from prison] if some other things take place. We just haven't gotten the legislation together yet to make sure that regarding non-violent criminals, we still have a way of keeping up with them and trying to give them the right direction." 

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