Pillar II: Criminal Justice Reform

Pillar II: Criminal Justice Reform

Criminal Justice Reform

From policing to reentry, our work here seeks to end excessively harsh criminal justice policies that result in the criminalization of communities of color, racial injustice, and mass incarceration.

Ensuring Equal Access to Justice

  • The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world.

  • In New Jersey, while Black and Latino people together comprise just 30% of the overall population, they represent 80% of the prison population.

  • One out of every three Black men born today in our country will go to jail or prison if current incarceration trends continue.

The Institute is working to create a rational and effective criminal justice system that strengthens communities by treating people, particularly the most vulnerable among us, fairly and equally; provides alternatives to incarceration; protects constitutional rights; ensures racial equality; and increases law enforcement responsiveness, accountability, and transparency. 

In particular, the Institute’s work focuses on transforming our criminal justice system outcomes from policing through reentry.  As part of this important work, we are reforming policing in New Jersey by fundamentally changing the relationship between law enforcement and the communities they serve through our New Jersey Communities Forward Initiative. The Institute is also working to end the excessively harsh criminal justice policies that result in the disproportionate stops and arrests, charging, sentencing, and incarceration of communities of color—including reforming drug policies which have not only failed to achieve public safety, but have resulted in an unprecedented number of people of color behind bars for nonviolent offenses. Our work also seeks to reduce New Jersey’s reliance on prisons, increase the use of alternative treatments as a means of solving social and health problems, and advance successful reentry initiatives.

Policing & Public Safety


In the wake of the multiple killings of unarmed people of color across the nation, the Institute launched New Jersey Communities Forward (NJCF), a cutting-edge initiative that seeks to build stronger, safer communities through community forums and trainings with law enforcement.   By drawing upon lessons learned from effective policing models here in New Jersey and across the country, and creating a safe space for honest and difficult discussions with law enforcement, this initiative encourages a much needed paradigm shift in the relationship between law enforcement and the communities they serve.

Since 2015, NJCF has hosted public safety forums and facilitated conversations with nearly 1,000 residents across several cities in New Jersey—including Atlantic City, Jersey City, Montclair, Newark, and Trenton. 

Law enforcement must respect and honor the humanity of the people they serve. We believe police service must seek first to build community. Law enforcement must join with the communities they serve to be both peacemakers and peacekeepers. 

Learn More about NJCF 

Juvenile Justice Reform

No criminal justice reform work would be complete without addressing the issues that face the most vulnerable members of our communities: our children.  Accordingly, the Institute has taken up the charge of reforming the juvenile justice system here in New Jersey to ensure that our state’s children—particularly children of color, who are disproportionately impacted—stay where they belong—in school, not prison.  Tragically, New Jersey has one of the highest rates of racial disparities in youth incarceration in the country.  

Faced with these harsh realities of how the criminal justice system in New Jersey is disproportionately affecting children in our urban communities, the Institute has made a commitment to dismantle this unjust system. In a state with few organizations focused exclusively on juvenile justice policies, the Institute has emerged as a leader on these issues, devoting substantial resources toward combating the challenges and inequities inherent in the state's juvenile justice system, including waiver to the adult system and disparities in treatment across racial and class lines.

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Similar to the way in which hospitals begin preparing patients to be discharged on the day of admission, so too should correctional facilities begin preparing people with criminal convictions for release on the first day of incarceration. But too often, people with criminal convictions leave jail or prison without meaningful access to work, a place to live, government assistance, or access to the ballot box. It is not surprising that with no way to support or house themselves or their families, and being excluded from participating in the government process, more than two-thirds of incarcerated people return to prison within three years after being released. 

The Institute has been a national leader in the reentry field for nearly two decades.  In 2003 in partnership with our initative, the Integrated Justice Alliance, we convened the New Jersey Reentry Roundtable, a year-long series of meetings, papers, and presentations which brought together leaders from state government and the judiciary, civic and faith-based organizations, academia, formerly incarcerated people, social service providers, and victims’ advocates to address reentry issues in our state.  This initiative spurred a number of policy reforms that, among other things, led to the successful passage of the Second Chance legislation and the Opportunity to Compete Act (OCA).

The Institute also works to guarantee that formerly incarcerated people receive adequate resources upon release, including information on driver’s license restoration and expungement of criminal records, and have access to meaningful employment opportunities and the ballot box. We will not stop until all citizens are welcomed home to their communities with a pathway to success, rather than being met with unlimited roadblocks that lead to recidivism.

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