Spending Trends on Corrections in New Jersey

A New Jersey Policy Perspective Analysis Prepared for the New Jersey Institute For Social Justice
By Mary E. Forsberg

INTRODUCTION

The state budget is a yearly statement of how much money will be spent on all the various programs of state government. Occurring at the intersection of policy and politics, the budget is also an expression of priorities. And in recent years spending in New Jersey on the Department of Corrections and related criminal justice functions has been a high priority. Consider that:

-The number of state prison inmates tripled over 20 years.
-Corrections spending has, by far, been the fastest growing component of the New Jersey state budget; it has been estimated that by 2005 New Jersey will spend more on corrections-related functions than all 50 states, combined, spent in 1975.
-By the end of the 1990s, New Jersey corrections facilities were operating at 40 percent over capacity-the sixth highest rate of overcrowding in the nation.
-Just over one-third of New Jersey correctional inmates are incarcerated for violations of drug laws-the nation’s highest rate.

And all of this has happened at a time when crime rates have been declining. As a report by The Sentencing Project observed, “Changes in sentencing law and policy, not increases in crime rates, explain most of the six-fold increase in the national prison population since the early 1970s.”

Many experts believe a change is taking place-that policy makers are rethinking the trend toward tougher sentences, driven at least in part by the high financial cost of tougher sentencing. Cost was cited as one reason behind a major revamping of drug laws in Michigan that took effect in March 2003. According to the Detroit News, the state stands to save $41 million this year alone from earlier parole, discharging offenders from lifetime probation and allowing judges to employ sentencing guidelines that provide more leeway to take into account an individual’s particular situation.

But sweeping change will not come overnight. For the foreseeable future, New Jersey must deal with laws and sentencing policies now on the books-and the financial cost they bring. This paper will examine decisions and trends with regard to how New Jersey has appropriated funds for corrections, in an effort to stimulate discussion about potentially more cost-effective ways to spend the money while at the same time guaranteeing public safety.

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