New Jersey's prison population has been reduced by 31 percent during a 15-year period, the biggest drop in the nation.

Inmate in jail (David Silverman, Getty Images)

The statistics are part of a recent analysis by The Sentencing Project, a group established in 1986 that works to improve fairness in the incarceration system. The report studied prison rates from 1999 to 2014 and found that 39 states saw a decline in their peak prison populations.

Twelve states produced double- digit prison population declines, with New Jersey leading the pack at 31 percent. New York, Rhode Island, California and Connecticut rounded out the top five.

New Jersey's prison population peaked in 1999, according to the report.

Eleven states saw increases in their prison populations. In the last five years, Nebraska has seen the biggest increase at nearly 22 percent.

As for New Jersey, officials at the state Department of Corrections (DOC) point to a number of factors, like drug court initiatives for those struggling with addiction and efforts to deter repeat offenders, for the population decline.

Under Gov. Chris Christie, New Jersey has expanded its mandatory drug court program. Started in 1996, drug courts have diverted thousands of nonviolent offenders from state prison through supervised drug treatments.

According to DOC, the rate at which drug court graduates are re-arrested for new offenses is 16 percent, that compares to a 54 percent re-arrest rate for drug offenders released from prison.

Drug courts are currently operating in all of the state's 21 counties.

DOC Chief of Staff Judith Lang said another factor that is helping reduce the prison population is Christie's support of re-entry initiatives. Some of these programs include one-stop centers which connect ex-offenders with a variety of services upon their release from prison and back into society.

Lang said New Jersey's recidivism rate has lowered from 48 percent to 32 percent.

"With Gov. Christie's support, we are going to continue to find ways to reduce our recidivism rates and our offender population," Lang said.

A drop in the state's crime rate has also helped.

"We have seen statistics that are showing that from 2011 to 2014, crime in New Jersey has fallen by 20 percent, and incarceration has fallen by 9.5 percent," Lang said.

Support among the state's various agencies and departments has also helped. Lang said Christie and Corrections Commissioner Gary Lanigan support and encourage collaborative efforts.

"We work all of the time with the Office of the Attorney General, state police, human services, parole, as well as legislators," Land said.

According to numbers from the DOC, the state's prison population has gone from more than 30,000 prisoners in 1999 to about 21,000 today.

"We are very proud of what we have achieved, but we are not done yet," Lang said.

 

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