New Jersey Criminal Justice Reform Advancing Racial Equity (NJ CARE) Study


Jurisdictions across the country are striving to increase equity in their pretrial justice systems by reducing their use of pretrial detention and money bail, which affect Black people and other people of color disproportionately and are linked to negative health and well-being outcomes. Despite the intentions of these reforms, there is little rigorous evidence available about whether they do, in fact, improve racial equity.

On January 1, 2017, the state of New Jersey implemented a sweeping set of reforms to its pretrial justice system to improve fairness in decision-making by judges, prosecutors, law enforcement, and other actors in the system while also protecting public safety and making sure people with open cases still appear in court. With these reforms, the state shifted from a system that relied on money bail to a system that uses a risk assessment tool to inform release decision-making. The New Jersey Criminal Justice Reform Advancing Racial Equity (NJ CARE) Study will assess the New Jersey reforms’ impacts on racial equity in pretrial practices and processes.

We will begin by examining the impact of the reforms for different racial groups and on racial disparities at various points in the pretrial process, both statewide and by county. Through qualitative methods, we will then identify potential underlying mechanisms—local reforms, court and police cultures, community engagement approaches, equity considerations, and community characteristics—that may explain county-specific impacts, with a focus on counties where we see greater movement towards racial equity. Throughout the study, we will strive to elevate the voices of those with present and previous involvement with the criminal justice system. The research team will work with individuals with lived experience in the justice system to contribute to our participatory action research-informed approach, with the goal of understanding how the impacts and policy changes we uncover translate into the human experience—including implications for well-being, health, and mental health.

Support for this research was provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Policies for Action program. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the Foundation.

Agenda, Scope, and Goals

The goals of this study are to assess to what extent New Jersey’s criminal justice reforms increased racial equity and, through an analysis of the state’s 21 counties, to identify potential mechanisms—for example, local reforms, court and police cultures, community engagement approaches, and community characteristics—that may explain any improvements we observe.

The project will answer the following research questions.

  1. What is the impact of New Jersey’s reforms on arrest decisions, pretrial detention, and case disposition for different racial groups? What is the resulting impact on racial disparities?
  2. How did the reforms’ effects on racial disparities in pretrial processes and outcomes vary across New Jersey’s 21 counties? What local, structural characteristics (for example, reform-oriented leadership, community-informed approach, police reforms) may explain any county-specific impacts observed? In counties with more equitable processes post-reforms, what types of approaches and local reform efforts were implemented and what was the community input process?
  3. What did individuals’ criminal justice experiences look like across time, and what are possible health and well-being consequences?

Design, Sites, and Data Sources

The New Jersey Criminal Justice Reform Advancing Racial Equity Study will use two methods to assess racial equity across the state of New Jersey, including in each of its 21 counties:

Impact Study. With a sample consisting of all arrests in the state of New Jersey from 2014 through 2017 (nearly 900,000 in total) from criminal justice administrative records, the impact study will use an interrupted time series design to assess whether Black people with open cases and White people with open cases experienced similar effects on key outcomes (for example, on arrests and pretrial detention) and to what extent the reforms led to changes in disparities between the two racial groups (which together represent more than 90 percent of arrests). While the criminal justice system can have harmful effects on the health and well-being of people of any race, its disproportionate harm towards Black people, families, and communities are especially salient and extensive. Meanwhile, due to the historical racial structure in the U.S., White people with open cases may have more resources to navigate their cases and be less likely to face racialized harms. We will assess these impacts statewide, as well as the extent to which effects vary across each of the state’s 21 counties.

Stakeholder-Guided Qualitative Study. This component will focus on counties where we see the most positive improvements in racial equity in the impact study. Through interviews with a wide array of stakeholders and document reviews, we will identify potential mechanisms of change—for example, local reforms, court and police cultures, community engagement approaches, and community characteristics—that may explain any improvements in racial equity that we observe. By doing so, this project will lay a groundwork for future research that could further evaluate the potential solutions identified.

Participatory action research-informed methods will contribute to each stage of the process. With support from the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, the research team will seek advice and guidance from a lived experience advisory group throughout the study. The aim of this approach is to conduct more culturally responsive research by including the priorities, perspectives, and concerns of those with lived experience and fostering a sense of self-determination and empowerment in the communities we are studying.