Michelle Alexander dedicates her book, “The New Jim Crow,” to the people who have been swept up by America’s racist criminal justice system. “You may be locked up or locked out of mainstream society, but you are not forgotten.” For the first time, all prisoners across New Jersey can read her words.
The ACLU of New Jersey learned that “The New Jim Crow” was banned as a matter of official policy in at least two prisons: New Jersey State Prison and Southern State Correctional Facility. On Monday, we sent a letter to the Department of Corrections commissioner telling him that the ban was not only unconstitutional as a violation of the First Amendment, but also that it was a deeply disturbing policy, especially since New Jersey has the worst racial disparities in incarceration in the entire country.
Hours after receiving our letter, the DOC announced it was lifting the ban. It further committed to review its policy and all current lists of banned materials for appropriate revision. We commend the DOC’s quick action, but even as we celebrate the return of “The New Jim Crow” to prison shelves, we must not be distracted from the work that remains to be done.
Lifting the ban in no way undoes the reality that made it so appalling in the first place. New Jersey still incarcerates its Black residents at a rate 12 times higher than its white residents, making New Jersey the most racially unjust incarcerator in the United States. Communities of color are still being targeted by the police. Families are being torn apart by incarceration. And tens of thousands of New Jerseyans are living with the collateral consequences of conviction, blocked from accessing the voting booth, jury service, public benefits, housing and employment opportunities, and literally thousands of other rights and benefits.
In our letter, we asked for corrective action and a response from the DOC by January 24. We’re pleased the DOC didn’t need that long. But New Jersey policymakers should take this as a call to engage in a long-term, broad effort toward decarceration, with a goal of ending racial discrimination in the criminal justice system.
In December, the ACLU-NJ released “A Vision to End Mass Incarceration in New Jersey,” a roadmap for criminal justice reform in our state. We proposed concrete steps in a number of areas — from reducing the number of people entering jails and prisons to reforming the culture of prosecutors’ offices and rethinking release. These steps could reduce the number of people in New Jersey jails and prisons by 19,750 people, or more than half. We believe this would ultimately make the system more racially just.
New Jersey has already shown it can be a leader, not only in racial disparities, but in meaningful criminal justice reform. Last January, New Jersey effectively eliminated money bail, creating a presumption of release for the vast majority of defendants and ensuring that people don’t languish in jail awaiting trial simply because they are poor.
This January, the ACLU of New Jersey is preparing to work with a new state administration. Based on his campaign promises, Gov.-elect Phil Murphy appears to be committed to tackling mass incarceration and our shameful racial disparities. We have high hopes for the future of our state.
The ACLU of New Jersey firmly believes that decarceration efforts cannot be successful unless they also address systemic racism. “The New Jim Crow” is a masterpiece work on the racism of mass incarceration. Rather than being banned, the book should be recommended reading for all state officials.