Funded on October 1, 2021

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.  

In 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. This study will assess the New Jersey reforms’ impacts on racial equity in pretrial practices and processes.  

The research team will work with individuals with lived experience in the justice system to contribute to a participatory action research-informed approach, with the goal of understanding how the impacts and policy changes uncovered translate into the human experience—including implications for well-being, health, and mental health. 

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? 

In assessing the extent to which New Jersey’s criminal justice reforms increased racial equity and identifying potential mechanisms that may explain any observed improvements, this study will help inform discourse around future reforms both in New Jersey and other states.