EDITORIAL: Prison program will improve many lives
More should be done to fix criminal justice system
As is a well established fact by now, with approximately 2.3 million people locked up, the United States has more people in prison per capita than any other nation in the world. One in five of those people are incarcerated for a non-violent drug offense. New Jersey itself, though, has taken meaningful steps to cut down on the number of people incarcerated. The Garden State’s incarceration rate has been steadily decreasing in recent years, and since its peak inmate population in the 1990s, New Jersey’s prison population has dropped more than any other state in the nation. Though Attorney General Gurbir Grewal has ordered N.J. district attorneys to resume prosecuting even minor marijuana cases after having put a pause to such prosecution over the summer, he essentially noted that prosecutors may use lenient discretion in convicting a person, especially when such convictions would jeopardize a person’s access to public housing, immigration status or parenting rights. These incremental changes are important in working to fix the criminal justice system, but one Rutgers program is taking it to the next level.
Rutgers—Newark, the New Jersey Department of Corrections, the State Parole Board and a collective of other colleges in the state including Rutgers—New Brunswick, collaborated to form the New Jersey Scholarship and Transformative Education in Prisons (NJ-STEP) program. This program works to give people incarcerated in New Jersey prisons access to higher education. Additionally, it assists people released from prison in their transition to college life.
The Literacy Project Foundation found that 3 out of 5 people in U.S. prisons are illiterate and 85 percent of juvenile offenders have difficulty reading. During time spent in prison, inmates often lose much of the skills they might have learned on the outside, and in many cases have little opportunity granted to them to gain such work skills back. After spending approximately 30 years of his life behind bars, Ronald Pierce enrolled in NJ-STEP during his time at East Jersey State Prison. By the time he was released in 2016, he had attained an associate’s degree in liberal arts from Mercer County Community College and had two Rutgers—Newark courses under his belt. When on the outside, he was able to transition to Rutgers—Newark and graduated summa cum laude in 2018. He also interned at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice during his last two semesters.
It is no secret that there is a stigma that comes along with having been locked up. But what situations like Pierce’s show us is that everyone has the right to an ability to change and enrich their lives. It is far too often the case that people in prison make mistakes that will not stop haunting them once they are released, but will rather continue to burden their lives essentially as long as they live. Considering the seemingly increasing importance of a college education, the NJ-STEP program is vital if we are to correct the downfalls of today’s criminal justice system.
But the reform should not stop at programs like NJ-STEP. While there are certain networking opportunities that inmates have access to, the University has the ability to partner with companies it is closely associated with, such as Johnson & Johnson, that could also take part in changing the course of thousands of people’s lives. It is of fundamental importance for society to realize that people can change for the better, and that a prison sentence does not automatically rid a life of its worth. Once this is understood, true and meaningful reform to the justice system can be enacted.
The Daily Targum's editorials represent the views of the majority of the 150th editorial board. Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.
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