By Joe . . . In a speech right after his razor-thin victory in last year’s election, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy said that he and his administration would now move forward with a “deeper sense of fairness and equality.” However, the equality and fairness the Governor spoke of does not appear to apply to everyone in the state.
Those in positions of authority have been talking about the need to correct the systemic racial and economic bias that has plagued the state’s criminal justice system for decades. This same bias, found nationwide, has resulted in an explosion in the number of people incarcerated in this country, especially a disproportionate number of people of color and those of fewer economic resources.
To his credit, Governor Murphy has been at the forefront of efforts to begin correcting this serious problem in New Jersey. Under his leadership, the state has enacted several bills designed to improve certain elements of the system, such as eliminating the need for cash bail, reducing sentences, and introducing educational programs in prisons.
In spite of this, however, he has deliberately permitted discriminatory policies to continue against the inmates housed at the Adult Diagnostic and Treatment Center, New Jersey’s only prison for people convicted of sexual offenses. With over 80 percent of its population comprised of members of racial minority groups, the LGBTQ community, and the underprivileged, the ADTC is the one prison in the state of New Jersey where the inequity Governor Murphy says he wants to rectify is the most acute.
The people at the ADTC have been for years specifically excluded from prison reform initiatives. Just last November, the Governor excluded those with sexual crime convictions from receiving the Health Emergency Credits given to all other inmates in the state. The bill provided sentence-reduction credits to help alleviate the hardship caused by Covid-19, but this population was specifically excluded from receiving this state relief despite that, like everyone else, they also suffered through Covid. Even more egregious is the fact that ADTC was one of the prisons in New Jersey most affected by the pandemic.
This state-sponsored discrimination faced by people convicted of sexual offenses in New Jersey is not limited to denying them the opportunity to reduce their sentences but pervades every aspect of their incarceration, from the food they receive to the educational programs they are offered. While inmates in other facilities have access to higher education courses, including the opportunity to earn college degrees, the ADTC doesn’t have a single college-level course, accredited vocational training, or skill-learning program. ADTC offers only high school equivalency classes, which are required by state law, and also the occasional one or two-day class given by an in-house instructor where, at the conclusion of the class, the students receive a computer-printed certificate.
However, things are changing. The loss of many legislative seats and the near defeat of the governor in the last election was seen as a message from the citizens that the administration needed to fulfill the progressive agenda they have promised for years, including prison and sentencing reform. To this effect, advocates have started an email campaign to remind the governor and legislators of the pledges they made during the campaign. There is also an online petition to repeal the No Early Release Act (NERA). This law requires that a person convicted of a violent crime serves a minimum of 85 percent of his sentence with no possibility of early parole for good behavior, educational accomplishments, or even progress in therapy. In New Jersey, most convicted of sexual crimes are sentenced as violent perpetrators and receive NERA sentences, despite the fact that in the vast majority of cases, no violence or even threats were used in the commission of the offense.
Inmates at the ADTC are also taking part in these efforts by writing to legislators demanding to have the right to earn credits to reduce their time in custody. They are also demanding the governor provide them with real access to parole and to make their progress in therapy a defining factor in the length of time they spend in custody.
”We are not asking to simply be released from incarceration,” reads in part the letter sent to the governor, “but for an opportunity to earn our chance to reduce our sentences; the same opportunity you provide all other inmates in the State.”