Fighting for reform in the criminal justice system

Bob Battle has spent much of his professional career leading the fight to reform the criminal justice system in New Jersey.

Identifying institutional racism and bias in the judicial system, he said, is the easy part. Fixing the problem is where the real challenges lie.

“Yes, racial discrimination still exists and disparity is one of its products,” said Battle, who headed the Equal Employment Opportunity and Affirmative Action for the judiciary in Trenton before retiring in 2014. “It is perpetuated in the courts with laws aimed at minorities dealing with sentencing laws based on Nixon and Reagan.”

The Nixon and Reagan Administrations, Battle said, created the “tough-on-crime” initiatives that was the origin of this disparity with mandatory sentencing and bail laws that were largely aimed at African Americans.

A study by the Sentencing Project shows that one out of every three African American men are incarcerated in the United States. The same study provides the statistic that the rate of incarceration in New Jersey between African American men and white men is a 12:2 ratio.

Another study, this one in 2016, said New Jersey has led the nation in reducing its state prison population, achieving a 31 percent reduction since 1999, with no adverse effect on public safety. However, racial disparities in the state are the highest in the nation.

This is where Battle did most of his work.

As chief officer for EEO/AA, he worked to maintain a diverse judiciary workfoce and ensured that the courts were free from discrimination.

He said the bail system put in place in New Jersey has been a major reason for the high racial disparity in the criminal justice system.

Battle pointed out that under the the old bail system, one could have a very low level of risk to either fail to appear in court or to get in trouble.

But if you are unable to afford even small amounts of bail, you are kept in jail, and this can lead to other problems.

“The issues caused by the outdated bail system were that minorities in the lower income echelons of our society were jailed more heavily than whites, and, in comparison, people who posed significant risk of actually harming people or not showing up in court, got freed on pre-trial release because they had access to money,” Battle said.

Judge Glenn A. Grant, the acting administrative director of New Jersey state courts, is hopeful that two state initiatives may get to the heart of the problem with an unfair bail system.

“The first thing you have to talk about is New Jersey’s Criminal Justice Reform Initiative,” said Grant, who was named to the Superior Court bench in 1998. “What we’ve attempted to do is eliminate bail as a pre-trial release system.

“Under bail in the past, you were released based upon how much money you have, not based upon your probability of showing up for court or getting in trouble.”

Grant said the Criminal Justice Reform Initiative addresses the two dual institutional issues caused by the bail system by the use of an algorithm used by employees working in all 15 court vicinages in New Jersey.

These employees send recommendations to the court based on results of a risk assessment scale called the public safety assessment that, with a scale from 1 through 6, 1 being low risk of crime, 6 being higher risk of crime, categorizes felons.

Grant said this, then, determines the release of a person whether it be of their own recognizance, house arrest or electronic monitoring.

“Philadelphia is trying something similar but they are still a long way,” Grant said of the reform initiative.

Since the New Jersey criminal justice reform program began last January, there has been a 20 percent reduction in prison population, which means a decrease in the ratio of black to white inmates.

“As you know, the prisons have a high percentage of people of color in jail so that is a way of positively impacting jail population,” Grant said.

Tonya Hopson, who took over for Battle as the chief judiciary officer for the EEO/AA, is taking reform of the state’s criminal justice system a step further.

“New Jersey has embarked on this last year, rolling out implicit training for our judges” said Hopson.

“With the implementation of this criminal justice reform we are developing training for all employees who are working with judges and the population to ensure that they are basing decisions on bail based on law not bias”.

She said the New Jersey judiciary has taken specific actions to make sure that anyone who comes in contact with the court system is treated fairly and respectfully.

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