Judge: Criminal Justice Reform Necessary and Working in NJ
Galloway, N.J. — Criminal justice reform may not be perfect, but it’s necessary to create greater fairness for defendants and help alleviate the huge costs involved with this country’s prison system.
That was the main point of a recent talk by retired New Jersey Judge Julio Mendez on March 2 at the fourth annual Criminal Justice Lecture Series. The series, sponsored by Stockton University’s School of Social and Behavioral Sciences, was held at the Campus Event Center Theater and focused on current developments in the criminal justice field.
Mendez joined Susan Mary Fahey, the research manager for the New Jersey Judiciary’s Quantitative Research Unit, to discuss an overview of reforms made to the criminal justice system in New Jersey since a reform bill was instituted in 2017.
Mendez left the bench in February 2022 after serving for more than 20 years and is now a senior contributing analyst for the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton.
He began the lecture with some sobering numbers about the number of people incarcerated:
- The United States has more than 2.2 million people in prison.
- The United States has 5% of the world’s population but 25% of the world’s prison population. If that number were a state, it would be the 35th largest state in the nation.
- The line item in this year’s New Jersey state budget for corrections is $1.1 billion, which doesn’t account for the money spent for county jails.
- Nationally, $250 billion is spent on prison-related items.
Mendez said the state and members of both political parties realized that something had to be done. The 2017 reform bill moved to a risk-based system to set bail, detaining those who are the highest risk, releasing moderate risk defendants with conditions and releasing low-risk defendants with minimal or no conditions.
There is absolutely no correlation between criminal justice reform and crime. As a matter of fact, states that don’t have criminal justice reform have seen increases in crime greater than New Jersey.”
Mendez said the old bail system had two major errors in that defendants who posed a significant risk to public safety were able to pay bail and often released and low-risk and nonviolent defendants, many of whom had mental health or drug addiction issues, were often detained.
“That had a huge impact on poor people. Their families weren’t able to post bail,” he said. “The bail system isn’t fair because they are cut off from their families and they can’t get jobs.”
Mendez said the number of people in New Jersey jails fell by 44% between 2015 and 2018 and the Pretrial Justice Institute gave New Jersey’s new bail system an A rating, the only state to get that.
“There is absolutely no correlation between criminal justice reform and crime,” Mendez said. “As a matter of fact, states that don’t have criminal justice reform have seen increases in crime greater than New Jersey.”
And while “no system of pre-trial release can guarantee that a pre-trial defendant will remain arrest free with 100% certainty,” statistics presented by Fahey showed that the new measures lowered crime – that is until the pandemic hit. And despite the fact that crime rose in 2020 and 2021, it appears recent numbers are leveling off.
“The system is more fair, the system takes into account risk,” Mendez said. “New Jersey has seen a reduction in crime up to the pandemic. And even after the pandemic, the New Jersey crime rate remains lower than most other states in the country.”
— Story and photo by Mark Melhorn