ABOUT THE NO EARLY RELEASE ACT IN NEW JERSEY
New Jersey’s No Early Release Act has been in place for more than 15 years. Signed by then Governor Christine Todd Whitman in 1997, the law mandates that anyone who has been convicted of a first or second degree criminal offense that meets the definition of a “violent crime” under the terms of the statute must serve at least 85% of the sentence handed down by the court. In addition, anyone convicted of such an offense must complete a specific period of parole supervision after release.
In a study conducted approximately five years after the law went into effect, researchers looked at the impact of the law, examining its effect on prosecution and sentencing, as well as corrections and crime victims. Researchers found that the law has had little to no impact on whether prosecutors choose to change the charges filed against a person. Prosecutors in all but two jurisdictions indicated that they either never changed charges or that it was not common for them to do so.
However, prosecutors are given a significant amount of latitude in sentencing. Even though prosecutors did not generally change the types of charges, the study showed that prosecutors used the No Early Release Act to bring about longer periods of incarceration. In fact, because the statute required that 85% of the sentence be served, prosecutors could actually ask for shorter prison terms that resulted in longer periods of incarceration than under prior laws. Prosecutors have found that it’s easier to get a court to approve a shorter sentence, but the term of incarceration actually ends up to be longer.
The longer terms of incarceration have had unforeseen consequences. Prison officials reported increased populations, overcrowding and higher levels of disciplinary problems. Unfortunately, when the law went into effect, New Jersey was already under a state of emergency with respect to its prison populations.
The study did indicate that crime victims were generally more satisfied with the sentences handed out. Prior to enactment of the law, less than 50% of crime victims reported satisfaction with the sentence given. After passage of the law, nearly 70% believed that the sentences handed down were appropriate.
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