The Supreme Court's Action Plan builds on efforts to improve equality in the courts.
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Supreme Court Action Plan for Equal Justice 2022
New Jersey Supreme Court Action Plan For Ensuring Equal Justice: Update on 2021 Action Items & 2022 Initiatives
In the wake of the tragic deaths of George Floyd and other people of color, the New Jersey Supreme Court and Administrative Director Glenn A. Grant on June 5, 2020 issued a public statement condemning racism and committing to “eradicate systemic barriers that stand in the way of justice.” The Court on July 16, 2020, followed up on its statement by announcing an
inaugural 2020 Action Plan for Ensuring Equal Justice, which outlined nine key areas that the Judiciary would seek to address within one year.
The Judiciary advanced all nine of the Court’s 2020 goals -- from institutionalizing a process to conclude probation supervision for individuals who had met rehabilitative goals, to elimination of outstanding discretionary juvenile fines and certain failure to appear warrants, to transformation of the landlord tenant process -- and in so doing removed barriers and burdens that fall disproportionately on poor people and people of color.
2021 Action Plan for Ensuring Equal Justice
On August 16, 2021, the Court released a public statement that summarized the status of each of the 2020 action items -- and a 2021 Action Plan that committed to focus on another nine equity initiatives. Over the past year, the Judiciary again has advanced all of the nine items in this second installment, with measurable results realized in the following areas:
- In coordination with intergovernmental partners and community stakeholders, the Judiciary is connecting court-involved individuals with critical mental health resources and advancing the work of the Mental Health Advisory Committee.
- Two counties already have implemented pilot programs focusing on people with serious mental illness who have been released consistent with Criminal Justice Reform and are subject to pretrial monitoring. Two more counties are in the planning phase of similar programs, which strive to better identify individuals with mental illness in county jails; facilitate linkages at the time of release to community-based services; explore opportunities for admission into diversionary programs and downgrades of criminal charges; and identify strategies for establishing a sustainable mental health diversion model for statewide expansion.
- To broaden support and engagement in what will be an ongoing statewide mental health initiative, all Judiciary employees during the past few months completed training on mental health awareness and response.
- The Judiciary Opportunities for Building Success (JOBS) program has connected hundreds of probation clients and participants in Recovery Court with employment opportunities, made possible through partnerships with various stakeholders. Implemented in all 21 counties by 2021, the JOBS program involves public-private partnerships with some of the top companies in New Jersey, including hospital systems, utilities, and large and small businesses, such as Goya Foods, Inc., Community Foodbank -- NJ, Public Service Gas & Electric (PSE&G), Amazon/Audible, Wayfair, Wakefern, Hard Rock, NJ Transit, Atlantic City Electronic, Robert Wood Johnson Barnabas Healthcare, Cooper Healthcare, the Essex County Bar Association, the New Jersey Presidents Council, Jingoli Industries, and the Department of Labor and Workforce Development.
- Hundreds of probation clients and participants in Recovery Court have been connected to meaningful employment (on the record with good pay and benefits) and valuable training programs that build skills and impart knowledge that clients will use throughout their terms of probation and beyond. Black clients comprise the largest race category (53%) of those
who have secured employment through the JOBS program.
- The 8,500+ members of the Judiciary workforce have completed training on awareness of implicit bias. Through interactive virtual programs conducted during the past year, all state court employees learned how to recognize and interrupt the effects of bias in professional and everyday contexts.
- The Judiciary created and implemented an Equity Impact Analysis (EIA) protocol so that that all new or revised court policies and protocols are reviewed before finalization to ensure alignment with Judiciary values and address potential disparities in the process or the outcome. Through regular use of the EIA in conjunction with Guiding Principles, the Judiciary this past year has identified and remedied potential gaps in policy proposals in order to advance access, fairness, and equity in court practices and procedures. The use of the EIA has also prompted deeper analysis of data regarding racial and ethnic disparities and illuminated areas in need of further data collection and analysis.
- The Court amended the Court Rules to authorize pro bono representation in State Tax matters by supervised law students and others appearing before the Division of Taxation and the Tax Court. The Court’s March 15, 2022 Order responded to an acknowledged gap in services for people of limited economic means. Stakeholders in the Executive Branch and Legal Services of New Jersey are continuing to work together to implement the Court-approved program.
- The Court authorized the collection of attorney demographic data, starting in January 2023, as part of the annual attorney registration process. This Court initiative will establish a baseline for diversity and inclusion in the legal profession.
- The Judiciary established a Special Committee that will soon issue recommendations to enhance procedural safeguards in Family Non-Dissolution (FD) matters in order to ensure equity consistent with similarly situated cases in the Family Matrimonial (FM) docket.
- The Court’s November 18, 2021 Order on the Future of Court Operations established an evolving framework to integrate lessons learned from the expedited transition to remote operations and the use of virtual proceedings necessitated by the pandemic. In order to better meet the needs of all consumers of court services, the Court committed to “a transition from almost all in-person court proceedings before the pandemic to a future that uses technology to provide expanded options for access, participation, timeliness, and justice."
- As approved by the Court, the Judiciary on July 19, 2022 issued Directive #07-22 (“New Jersey Judiciary Policy on Accessible & Inclusive Communications”). In the new policy, the Court committed to communications that are more understandable and accessible. The policy also reaffirms a commitment to communications that consider diverse identities and experiences, avoid and reduce barriers, and address the individual needs of each court user.
Maintaining Momentum on Equity Initiatives
The Court over the past two years has demonstrated a commitment to new results and has sustained the reforms highlighted in the first two installments of its Action Plan. Even as new initiatives are advanced, the Judiciary continues to ensure that the progress and advancements made in the prior years are permanently incorporated into our work.
Among other ongoing efforts, we continue to advance many of the initiatives championed in the 2020 and 2021 Action Plans, including:
- Efforts to improve inclusion and reduce bias in jury processes through more representative jury pools, exploration of attorney-conducted voir dire and a voluntary reduction in peremptory challenges, along with a new more objective approach to striking otherwise qualified jurors. For a recent update, see the July 12, 2022 notice publishing the Supreme
Court’s Administrative Determinations on the Recommendations of the Judicial Conference on Jury Selection and related orders;
- Increase in pilot programs and expansion of efforts to support individuals with mental health challenges who become involved with the courts. The Judiciary anticipates announcements about funding and plans for additional pilot programs in a number of counties in the coming year, as part of developing a model for eventual statewide use; and
- Continuing collaboration with an array of private employers, the Department of Labor and Workforce Development, and others to connect probation clients and participants in Recovery Court with meaningful employment as part of their reintegration into society.
New Goals for the 2022 Action Plan for Ensuring Equal Justice
In addition to continuing the momentum of prior years, the Supreme Court has authorized a focus on the following items in the coming year:
- Integration and expansion of tools for judges and staff at all levels to voluntarily engage in race equity discussions, including development of a toolkit to facilitate such conversations at all levels;
- Enhancement of local initiatives designed to reduce the inappropriate use of secure juvenile detention, while protecting public safety and supporting court appearances;
- Analysis of data regarding youth in out-of-home placements, with a focus on reducing the disparity in time to permanency for youth of color;
- Enhancement of practices, protocols, and trainings to ensure inclusion and the elimination of structural barriers to the courts for LGBTQ+ people;
- Institutionalization of community engagement initiatives to maintain and strengthen relationships with attorneys, other system stakeholders, and members of the public as part of promoting public confidence in the courts;
- Reexamination of court practices related to all types of disabilities or different abilities, in partnership with Disability Rights New Jersey and other public and private stakeholders;
- Coordination of outreach and awareness programs focused on, and responsive to, populations at risk of violence, including Asians and Pacific Islanders and individuals of Jewish faith and culture, in addition to ongoing outreach and collaboration with groups that advance issues affecting people of color;
- Continued expansion of the relationships and outreach of the County Domestic Violence Working Groups to optimize processes and outcomes for individuals and families; and
- Expansion of training on data analytics for judges and court staff to identify and address potential disparate effects on people of color and support organization-wide consideration of quantitative (as well as qualitative) measures to assess policies.
While the path to a more equitable future may at times be more difficult, the journey -- and the destination -- are of ongoing importance and urgency. In that spirit, the Court commits to focus on and allocate resources to advance
a new package of reforms designed to make the courts fairer, more accessible, and more just for all people.
Supreme Court Action Plan for Equal Justice 2021
New Jersey Supreme Court Action Plan For Ensuring Equal Justice: Update on 2020 Action Items & 2021 Initiatives
The New Jersey Supreme Court on July 16, 2020 issued its inaugural Action Plan for Ensuring Equal Justice, which documented the New Jersey Judiciary’s longstanding leadership in the area of racial and ethnic fairness. In that document, the Court committed the Judiciary to do even more, both immediately and in the future, to improve equity in the courts. This report provides an update on the status of the Court’s 2020 action items and announces further areas of focus for 2021.
The 2020 Action Plan introduced nine areas in which the Court sought to make equity-based improvements within one year. Consistent with the Court’s pledge, the Judiciary has advanced those action items. In addition, members of the court community have embraced the opportunity to examine internal processes, expand collaboration with stakeholders, and enhance court procedures and services to address both identified and potential gaps in equity. These ongoing interrelated efforts are designed to support greater access, fairness, and equity for all who seek justice through the New Jersey courts, especially for individuals and communities who throughout history have been underrepresented and as a result have experienced less than true equality under the law. Taken together, they are intended to ensure that our system of justice provides expanded options for individuals to connect with court services, understandable processes for navigating court systems, meaningful opportunities to be heard, and consistent procedures that support fair and unbiased outcomes.
The pursuit of equity is an ongoing process that requires constant recommitment and concerted action. To that end, the New Jersey Supreme Court here announces nine new initiatives to improve procedural and substantive justice for everyone, including adults and children who continue to face obstacles because of racism and systemic disparities. These Year 2 action items include reforms intended to improve equity for people of color, as well as for persons affected by mental health conditions, addiction, and the challenges associated with poverty.
Status Of Progress - Action Plan Year 1
The following chronicles the Judiciary’s progress in each of the nine areas set forth in its 2020 Action Plan, including both short-term improvements and institutionalization of ongoing reforms.
- Supporting Juror Impartiality
The New Jersey Supreme Court is committed to the selection of fair and impartial juries that fully represent their communities. Having requested and considered public comments on draft proposals, the Court in July 2021 approved new jury selection questions and additions to model jury instructions to support juror impartiality and reduce the effects of implicit bias. These updated questions and instructions will be implemented later in 2021 in conjunction with a new juror orientation video on impartiality and implicit bias.
The Supreme Court in State v. Andujar (A-6-20) (decided July 13, 2021) announced a Judicial Conference on Jury Selection in late 2021. The Judicial Conference will examine implicit bias in jury selection, including but not limited to the potential effects of the allotment and exercise of peremptory challenges on juries and juror experiences in criminal trials. In State v. Dangcil (State v. Wildemar A. Dangcil A-56-20) (decided August 16, 2021), the Court also directed that juror demographic data be collected.
- Reducing Timeframes for Post-Dispositional Supervision
The Court in December 2020 approved a framework for standardized statewide review of certain adults and juveniles subject to probation supervision. Consistent with that protocol, Superior Court judges ordered early termination of probation supervision for more than 500 individuals who had achieved critical rehabilitative goals and met other relevant criteria. Some individuals were discharged entirely, and others had their cases converted from supervision to collections only.
The Court-authorized review and individualized judicial actions ended the burdens – disproportionately faced by Black and Latino people – associated with ongoing court involvement beyond a rehabilitative purpose. This standardized review process and timely conclusion of supervisory terms will continue and expand as supported by new automated risk assessment tools.
- Supporting Juvenile Rehabilitation
The Court in its October 20, 2020 Order vacated all outstanding discretionary juvenile fines (which totaled more than $140,000 statewide), stating that “[t]he young people who owe those fines - including disproportionate numbers of youth of color - overwhelmingly lack the capacity to make necessary payments, and the fines serve only to prolong involvement with the juvenile and criminal justice systems.” The Court’s October 20, 2020 Order also vacated open failure to appear juvenile warrants issued more than five years ago for non-violent 4th degree or lesser charges.
In addition to those immediate actions, the Court established a process for local courts to annually dismiss such warrants, so as to avoid prolonged burdens on individuals who as juveniles failed to appear for minor, nonviolent charges.
- Requiring Anti-Bias Continuing Legal Education (CLE)
The Court adopted amendments to Continuing Legal Education (CLE) requirements, effective January 1, 2021, so as to require all judges and attorneys to complete two hours (in each two-year reporting cycle) of coursework in diversity, inclusion, and elimination of bias, as part of an expanded five-hour requirement for ethics and professionalism.
Following through on the Court’s promise to support fulfillment of these new requirements, the Judiciary in early 2021 launched a year-long series of free virtual CLE courses on the elimination of bias. To date, more than 3,500 individuals have participated in the Judiciary’s interactive virtual programs, which examine the histories and dynamics of structural, explicit, and implicit biases; explore the relationship among implicit associations, implicit assumptions, and implicit bias in thought processes and decision-making; identify microaggressions common in professional legal settings; and provide additional tools and resources to eliminate the effects of bias in the administration of justice and the practice of law. In addition to New Jersey licensed attorneys seeking to fulfill the new CLE requirement, justices and judges from around the nation have participated in the ongoing virtual courses.
The Court’s amendments to Rule 1:42 prompted reexamination of other educational requirements, as reflected in new requirements for diversity, inclusion, and elimination of bias training for municipal court administrators, deputy administrators, and directors, and in the addition of implicit bias training for Family Part and Civil Mediators.
- Using Technology to Improve Opportunities to Access Expungement Resources
New Jersey expungement statutes were recently amended to reduce waiting periods and expand the types of offenses eligible for expungement. As required by those legislative enactments, the Court authorized expungement electronic filing. Throughout 2021, the Judiciary has engaged in outreach efforts to raise awareness of expanded expungement resources and to facilitate use of this new tool.
In the November 2020 general election, New Jersey voters approved a referendum to decriminalize the use of marijuana by adults. The new law required dismissal and vacatur by operation of certain offenses that involve distribution or possession of small amounts of marijuana or hashish and entitled individuals to obtain expungements of those records. Accordingly, the Court in its July 1, 2021 Order authorized the automation of expungements for eligible individuals in the enumerated categories. As a result, the records of people who are poor and lack legal resources will be cleansed with the same efficiency and timeliness as the records of individuals who can afford access to legal representation. Approximately 360,000 cases in the Superior Court (Criminal and Family) and in the Municipal Courts potentially fall within this statutory direction. The Judiciary has launched an outreach campaign to ensure that all eligible individuals are aware of the new legislation and the benefits that flow from expungements.
- Enabling Alternative Methods of Resolving Municipal Court Matters
The Judiciary developed and implemented the Municipal Case Resolution (MCR) system. This online system allows court users to electronically reach out to the municipal prosecutor to help resolve certain traffic offenses remotely without an appearance. Rolled out statewide in July 2020, tens of thousands of defendants have used this online system to initiate a plea agreement with the municipal prosecutor to resolve their case.
As authorized by the Court, the Judiciary expanded the Statewide Violations Bureau Schedule to add more than 400 additional matters for which defendants can plead guilty without a court appearance. The Judiciary also enhanced the NJMCdirect.com online portal so as to allow online payments, without court appearances, for non-traffic/parking matters and to support payments by monthly installments.
The Court in April 2021 authorized the substantial expansion of time payment plans and alternatives in order to ensure that such reasonable options are widely rather than sparingly available to defendants. The Court’s action improves convenience to court users, specifically those with longstanding or short-term financial challenges, and avoids discussion of financial circumstances in open court. The Court urged judges to use their statutory authority when appropriate to revoke all or a portion of a penalty if (1) continuing payment of even a modest amount would cause a hardship or (2) the circumstances have changed such that it is in the interest of justice to do so.
- Broadening Language Access Resources
The Judiciary expanded and improved language access services during the COVID-19 pandemic, including to add simultaneous interpreting (in addition to the consecutive mode) so as to maximize the efficiency of remote proceedings.
The Court in June 2020 supplemented its existing Language Access Plan to provide guidance for remote proceedings. In 2021, the Judiciary posted comprehensive Video Remote Interpreting (VRI) resources on its public website. Those new public-facing resources include training webinars and instructional videos for court interpreters to provide services using different technologies. Virtual information sessions were also offered to freelance interpreters in spring 2021 to provide additional supports to the professionals called upon by the courts to provide services in remote and hybrid settings.
- Reexamining Access to Misused Court Records
The Court in September 2020 solicited public comment on proposed amendments to Rule 1:38 (“Court Records Excluded from Public Access”) so as to remove from public access certain categories of records in landlord tenant matters. The eviction crisis arising from the COVID-19 pandemic increased the urgency of this reexamination for hundreds of thousands of New Jersey tenants and landlords. Those tenants include not only individuals who struggled to pay rent during COVID-19 but also those with cases before and after the public health crisis for whom the process of obtaining future rental housing may be more difficult in light of changes to the economic landscape.
The Court in July 2021 determined to exclude from public access certain categories of records of adjudicated landlord tenant cases. The Judiciary has explored the operational steps necessary to implement the Court’s action, as of March 2022. Read the recent "Notice and Order" for amendments to Rule 1:38-3(f) in removing public access records in landlord tenant matters.
- Improving the Landlord Tenant Process
Over the past year, the Court authorized a number of reforms to improve equity in landlord tenant proceedings, including the establishment of an exemption from other pro bono requirements for attorneys who provide at least 25 hours of uncompensated representation to qualifying tenants or landlords. During the extended moratorium on residential evictions, the Court introduced virtual settlement conferences to assist willing parties in resolving disputes without delay. At the same time, Judiciary staff at all levels worked with intergovernmental partners, including the Department of Community Affairs, to connect New Jersey residents with rental housing assistance resources.
In March 2021, Chief Justice Stuart Rabner established the Special Committee on Landlord Tenant to reimagine all aspects of the landlord tenant process in New Jersey. In its April 21, 2021 report, the Special Committee offered recommendations to address all phases of landlord tenant events through proposed amendments to Court Rules, new and revised forms, improved court processes, and informational materials. As recommended by the Special Committee, the Court in June 2021 established a new statewide Landlord Tenant Legal Specialist program to enhance case review, provide opportunities for resolution before trial, and support the fair and efficient processing of cases.
After considering extensive written comments and oral testimony by practitioners and advocates, the Court on July 14, 2021 issued its Administrative Determinations on the Special Committee’s Report and Recommendations. Contemporaneously, the Court in its July 14, 2021 Order relaxed the Rules of Court so as to establish a new process for residential landlord tenant cases.
The Court’s actions involve new pleadings, revised processes, and pretrial events that will support a more robust and transparent record, so as to enable early identification of issues, differentiated management of cases, and opportunities for parties to connect with rental assistance and legal assistance resources and to resolve disputes without trial. The interrelated reforms approved by the Court will support fair and efficient processing of landlord tenant cases throughout New Jersey.
Advancing Equity In The Context Of A Global Pandemic
Beyond the above one-year action items, the Court in its 2020 Action Plan committed to continue ongoing efforts to improve procedural justice and support equitable outcomes for all people. Despite the challenges of a global pandemic, the Judiciary over the past year has fulfilled the Court’s promise, including in the areas of Criminal Justice Reform, Juvenile Justice, and Municipal Courts. In each of those and other areas, the Court authorized temporary modifications to court operations so as to sustain and even enhance access and fairness
The Court responded to the unprecedented risks associated with incarceration during the pandemic, including through a Consent Order for the release of certain defendants, and adjustments to sentencing protocols designed to reduce jail populations without jeopardizing public safety. The Judiciary also implemented remote reporting by defendants released pretrial to maintain oversight and critical connections with individuals subject to monitoring.
In child welfare dockets, virtual proceedings yielded unexpected benefits. Remote technologies offered a convenient way for youth to participate in court events without missing school or other responsibilities. The use of remote formats for final adoption hearings avoided delays to permanency for children throughout New Jersey and enabled families to celebrate those joyous occasions.
The Judiciary is in the process of an ongoing transition to a “remote first” approach to the Municipal Courts and other high-volume dockets. At the same time, the Court has continued to address the unintended consequences of driver’s license suspensions and bench warrants in old cases no longer suitable for prosecution. The Court in May 2021 dismissed nearly 300,000 minor municipal court matters involving active driver’s license suspensions, imposed at least 27 years ago, for defendants who failed to appear in court. The Court expects to dismiss another 1.5 million additional cases through calendar year 2022 as part of this initiative.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the Court led in a manner designed to ensure access to the courts for all people, particularly mindful of those who confronted greater barriers because of the sudden transition from in-person to remote operations. Among other steps, the Court authorized the Judiciary’s expansion of its electronic filing system so that self-represented individuals could seek legal relief without delay, even while the number of judges and court staff present in courts was curtailed to protect public health. The Court also approved temporary modifications to jury processes, including virtual grand juries and hybrid jury trials, to uphold the rights of criminal defendants. The Court conditioned those adjustments on the Judiciary’s procurement and provision of Broadband enabled tablets to jurors in need of technology so that all qualified members of the community could serve on grand juries and trial juries. Beyond court programs and processes, the Chief Justice, Supreme Court, and Administrative Director responded to the wave of anti-Asian violence that escalated during the pandemic by engaging judges, court staff, and legal and nonlegal advocates.
Continuation Of Progress - Year 2 Initiatives
As part of an organizational focus on advancing equity in all areas of court services, the Court over the past year guided the Judiciary’s efforts to achieve measurable results in the areas highlighted for initial action. All levels of the courts contributed to making progress on the 2020 action items. At the same time, the Court’s call to action resonated throughout the organization such that judges, staff, and other members of the court community identified and raised for attention other areas of known or potential inequity. These areas form the basis for the Court’s 2021 Action Plan for Ensuring Equal Justice. Building on the framework and principles of its 2020 Action Plan, the New Jersey Supreme Court now announces the following areas in which the Judiciary will strive to demonstrate measurable progress within the next year:
- Improving procedural safeguards and equitable outcomes for individuals with mental health challenges who are involved with the justice system.
The Judiciary in coordination with intergovernmental partners and community stakeholders will advance the work of the Mental Health Advisory Committee.
- Supporting employment opportunities for clients and graduates of Judiciary drug court and probation programs.
In partnership with private employers, the Department of Labor, Legislators, Prosecutors, Public Defenders, and public institutions, the Court through the Judiciary Opportunities for Building Success (JOBS) program will advance initiatives aimed at connecting New Jersey drug court participants, Intensive Supervision Program (ISP) participants, and probation clients to training and employment opportunities.
- Requiring training on implicit bias and elimination of bias for all Judiciary employees.
The Court will evaluate a proposal to require all state court employees to complete a standardized training on recognition and elimination of explicit and implicit bias.
- Integrating equity impact analysis tools to support consideration of (and mitigation against) potential disparities in court policies and protocols.
The Court will consider introduction of internal tools to ensure that proposed policies and protocols align with the Judiciary’s values and mission, including to facilitate evaluation of anticipated outcomes, including those that may have a disparate or disproportionate effect on certain racial or ethnic groups. Consistent engagement in equity impact analysis would support implementation of appropriate strategies to prevent inequitable results and systemic disparities in outcomes.
- Expanding access to legal representation at all levels of the courts.
The Court will consider a number of proposals designed to support access to legal assistance for individuals and entities who otherwise would lack such guidance. Such initiatives may involve expanded opportunities for pro bono service by attorneys, including in areas of significant potential consequences. Efforts may include expanded permission for law students and recent law graduates to assist parties in certain case types and matters The Judiciary will continue to explore collaborative efforts with law school clinics and qualified pro bono organizations.
- Broadening diversity and inclusion in legal and non-legal court appointments.
The Court will explore collection and analysis of demographic data for individuals appointed by the courts, including experts, evaluators, and mediators, in order to assess the representativeness of court-involved and court-annexed programs. Tracking of expert qualifications and the baseline level of diversity and representativeness would position the Judiciary to undertake targeted outreach to underrepresented groups and to improve cultural competency in key areas, including those that involve children.
- Supporting fairness for children of unmarried parents through critical examination of the non-dissolution (FD) docket.
The Court will act on a pending proposal to establish a Special Committee to bring together key stakeholders from legal and community advocacy associations along with judges and court staff. That Special Committee would develop recommendations to enhance procedural safeguards in Family Non-Dissolution (FD) matters and ensure equity and procedural fairness consistent with similarly situated cases in the Family Matrimonial (FM) docket.
- Modernizing aspects of court access and records to align with new technologies and remote operations.
The Court will review and seek public comment on a number of related proposals to integrate the lessons learned during the temporary transition to remote operations.
- Using language that is inclusive and easy to understand in court communications.
Language, both spoken and written, is central to how the courts interface with litigants, stakeholders, and the community. The Court will consider an array of proposals to reexamine and improve use of language in all areas.
Next Steps: Ongoing Transparency And Accountability
Words alone are insufficient to advance the cause of equity. Actions, even when coupled with good intentions, likewise are not enough. In the end, the value of the New Jersey Supreme Court’s plans will be in the sustainable systemic changes that are achieved.
The 2020 Action Plan for Ensuring Equal Justice resulted in measurable benefits to people of color and others who historically have been underserved by or marginalized within the justice system. Those tangible benefits included vacating non-rehabilitative fines and open warrants, automated expungements of minor marijuana offenses, and early termination of probation supervision – all of which involve the lifting of burdens that fall disproportionately on Black and Latino people within our communities. In other areas, such as reforms to jury selection and improvements to landlord tenant processes, results will be less immediate and require more time to yield cognizable changes, which is why the Judiciary has taken steps to collect the data necessary to evaluate the results of these efforts.
The Court in its Year 2 Action Plan again commits to initiatives that will yield immediate results as well as procedural and operational improvements that will position the New Jersey courts as a leader in fostering a system of justice that is accessible, equitable, and free from structural barriers and biases.
Supreme Court Action Plan for Equal Justice 2020
New Jersey Judiciary -- Commitment to Eliminating Barriers to Equal Justice: Immediate Action Items and Ongoing Effort
The New Jersey Judiciary is committed to ensuring access and fairness for everyone, and to seeking out and eliminating barriers to equality wherever they exist. Through the leadership of Chief Justice Stuart Rabner and the New Jersey Supreme Court, the Judiciary continues to work diligently to uncover and address institutional obstacles to justice for all people, especially those who have been disadvantaged by the court system and denied true justice.
On June 5, 2020 the New Jersey Supreme Court renewed its commitment to eradicating systemic barriers to equality and promised to do more to ensure that our courts administer justice. Today, the Court follows up on that statement by announcing specific interim goals that the New Jersey Judiciary will strive to achieve within the next year, while continuing ongoing efforts, including working internally and with our interbranch partners to identify, confront, and seek to remedy institutional bias and inequality.
Confronting the Need for Change
Guided by the Court, New Jersey judges and staff over the past several weeks have engaged in frank conversations about discrimination against Black people and others, focusing on how systemic racism continues to contribute to disparate court experiences and outcomes for children and adults of color. The Judiciary, at all levels, will confront those challenges and continue to engage in critical self-analysis and collaborative discussion as one part of identifying and eliminating individual and institutional bias. To that end, the Court has approved expanded internal training and awareness programs for judges and staff to ensure that our community will be part of the solution.
The Supreme Court’s One-Year Action Plan
The New Jersey Judiciary has not yet identified all areas of disparity in our justice system and commits to redoubling our efforts to uncover those obstacles to equality while at the same time taking steps to address known barriers to access and justice.
In furtherance of the principles articulated in its June 5, 2020 statement, the New Jersey Supreme Court will work to accomplish the following reforms within the next year while expanding additional longer-term efforts:
- Supporting Juror Impartiality. The Judiciary will work to implement policies and protocols to support juror impartiality, including: (a) expanded juror orientation content regarding implicit and explicit bias; (b) model jury charges on impartiality and implicit bias; (c) new and revised mandatory model jury selection questions on recognizing and counteracting bias in the jury process; and (d) examining options for changes to the Court Rules relating to impartiality in the juror selection process. Internally and in collaboration with stakeholders, we also will respond to the results of the “Peremptory Challenge Impact Study,” a forthcoming analysis by external experts of the effects of the exercise of peremptory challenges on the racial composition of jury venires and seated juries.
- Reducing Timeframes for Post-Dispositional Supervision. Focusing on objective measures of client outcomes and community safety, we will reexamine durational requirements established by and within the control of the Supreme Court for persons on probation supervision. The Judiciary will codify recommended timeframes for adults on probation including those graduating from our Drug Court Program and/or Intensive Supervision Program (“ISP”) to ensure that supervisory terms are tailored to provide maximum benefit without prolonging non-rehabilitative court involvement for the purpose of collecting fines and fees that can be enforced without further supervision. We also will explore standardized best practices for juvenile probationary terms, including for the Juvenile Intensive Supervision Program (“JISP”), that prioritize incentives proven to have the greatest effect on long-term prosocial behavior changes.
- Supporting Juvenile Rehabilitation. The Judiciary will examine options for retroactively rescinding and prospectively eliminating court-imposed punitive fines and penalties for juveniles, excluding restitution of monetary obligations and other statutorily required victim-compensation amounts. In conjunction with those efforts, we will continue expanding Juvenile Probation and JISP resources, including through development of culturally. focused trainings and programs to meet the needs of all youth under supervision, including substantial numbers of youth of color.
- Requiring Anti-Bias Continuing Legal Education. The Supreme Court will revisit, refine, and adopt an “elimination of bias” requirement as part of statewide mandatory Continuing Legal Education for judges and attorneys.
- Using Technology to Make the Expungement Process Easier. The Judiciary will improve opportunities for all persons to access expungement resources, including through ongoing in-person and virtual outreach efforts and expanded use of technology.
- Enabling Alternative Methods of Resolving Municipal Court Matters.
We will reduce the need for litigants to appear in person at Municipal Courts, including by expanding (a) the Statewide Violations Bureau Schedule to allow payment (without appearance) of additional low-level statutory fines and penalties; and (b) the Municipal Online Dispute Resolution application, which enables persons charged with minor matters to negotiate a plea amount via an online portal for approval by a judge.
- Broadening Language Access Resources. Building on initial steps implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Supreme Court will supplement the Judiciary Language Access Plan to provide more detailed guidance on interpreting services for remote court proceedings and additional resources and standards for indigenous language services.
- Reexamining Access to Misused Court Records. The Supreme Court will prioritize ongoing efforts to amend Court Rule 1:38 (“Public Access to Court and Administrative Records”) to exclude from public access records that as currently maintained create inappropriate hardships for disadvantaged populations (e.g., records of landlord/tenant complaint filings that do not note the outcome), while upholding the Judiciary’s commitment to transparency.
- Improving the Landlord/Tenant Process. The Judiciary will support fairer processes by providing plain language information to tenants and landlords about claims and defenses and engaging judges in focused review of settlement agreements, especially those involving self-represented litigants.
The Court will strive to deliver results in the above nine areas within the next year as part of the continuing process to address pervasive barriers to justice.
Continuing Critical Judiciary Initiatives
The New Jersey Judiciary has a long history of confronting race-based disparities in the courts. More than 30 years ago, New Jersey joined with New York, Michigan, and Washington to create the National Consortium on Racial and Ethnic Fairness in the Courts, and we continue to host provocative and necessary programs through the Consortium and the National Center for State Courts. Three decades ago, the New Jersey Supreme Court established a standing committee to examine and propose responses to racial inequality in the justice system, initially named the Committee on Minority Concerns. The Court in 2019 issued a new name – the Committee on Diversity, Inclusion, and Community Engagement – and an updated and expanded charge to that group, which continues to inform our policy initiatives through centralized and grassroots efforts with community stakeholders.
Aware of the dual challenges of a global pandemic and economic downturn, the Court commits to continuing to support meaningful access to and inclusion in the courts, including through the following critical initiatives.
- Through Municipal Court reforms, we have reexamined and modified the use of contempt sanctions; amended the Court Rules to cap financial penalties for failures to appear and failures to pay; limited the use of bench warrants as an enforcement tool; and by Court Order dismissed more than 787,000 unresolved, minor matters that were at least 15 years or older.
- Through juvenile justice reforms, including the Juvenile Detention Alternative (JDAI) program, we have substantially reduced the numbers of juveniles detained in secure facilities and supported young people in reinventing themselves and reclaiming their futures after early court involvement.
- Through Criminal Justice Reform, New Jersey has significantly reduced the numbers of Black people and others detained pretrial in state and county jails. This stops at the early stages a criminal justice process that otherwise leads to loss of employment, loss of housing, and loss of family connections.
In addition to those documented efforts, the New Jersey Judiciary in recent years has launched initiatives to deconstruct and recreate institutions that serve as operative points in providing equality and fairness, including the following:
- Analyzing and Reforming the Jury Selection Process. The Judiciary will continue its “Combined Jury Studies” started in 2016, which seek to identify areas of potential disparity and bias in the jury selection process. In consultation with external experts engaged in 2019, the Judiciary will continue (1) quantitative analysis of the representativeness of reporting juror pools, and (2) evaluation of potential disproportionate exclusion of people of color at critical junctures in the post-selection progress, including the exercise of peremptory challenges. Those ongoing efforts will inform new strategies to support more representative juror pools and seated juries.
- Transforming Probation Services. The Judiciary’s Probation Services Division will continue to transition from a model based on monitoring and enforcement to a program committed to assisting clients in making positive behavior changes in their lives. Among other changes, Probation is (1) mitigating against individual implicit bias by using a validated risk/needs tool to assess recidivism risk and identify and target areas in need of intervention; (2) focusing on high risk cases and avoiding unnecessary criminal justice involvement for low-risk clients no longer in need of services; (3) using a structured response grid to ensure uniformity in responses and prioritization of incentives and graduated sanctions in lieu of frequent violations; and (4) training all Probation Officers to use cognitive behavioral, problem-solving techniques to help clients in making and sustaining positive change.
- Bridging the Digital Divide. The Judiciary will continue to leverage technology to enable access to the courts, including through new and improved electronic filing systems designed for self-represented litigants. In launching and expanding such efforts, we recognize that people of color are less likely to have access to home computers and reliable internet service, and we will continue to assist court users and provide technology when necessary, including in dedicated resource rooms in Judiciary facilities and, in some cases, via distribution of technology to jurors and others involved in virtual court proceedings
Through the above ongoing efforts and other in-depth initiatives, the Judiciary will continue to dedicate resources to analyze judicial operations and implement data-driven reforms as part of improving processes and outcomes for people of color.
Supporting Legislative Reforms
Systemic problems require systemic solutions. In conjunction with the above Judiciary-led reforms, the Court reiterates its ongoing commitment to work with the Executive and Legislative branches to respond to disparity. Mindful of its fundamental independence and neutrality, the Judiciary will collaborate with the Legislature and the Executive branch as appropriate on legislation in the following areas:
- Reexamining the Jury Selection Process: Working with partners to respond to the results of a forthcoming study on the exclusion of cognizable groups from jury venires and seated juries.
- Mental Health Initiatives: Supporting system-wide initiatives to improve the criminal justice system’s handling of matters involving individuals with mental illness while improving access to mental health services for individuals with criminal and non-criminal court involvement, including through (1) creation of options to redirect eligible persons away from the criminal justice system and into appropriate case management and mental health services; and (2) establishment of court-annexed pilot programs for support and resources. Continuing the ongoing efforts of the Judiciary Mental Health Advisory Committee, which includes representatives from all three branches of government as well as health providers, mental health advocacy groups, and local law enforcement.
- Juvenile Justice Reforms: Supporting fairer processes and more equitable outcomes for juveniles, including: (1) expanding Office of Public Defender representation of juveniles; (2) accelerating the rescission of certain juvenile delinquency fines and making discretionary post-incarceration supervision; (3) retroactively rescinding and dismissing juvenile fines and penalties beyond the purview of the Court; (4) removing youth from prison-like environments; (5) investing in non-prison-like rehabilitative programs; and (6) investing in mental health support services for juveniles.
- Sentencing Reforms: Implementing the recommendations of the Criminal Sentencing and Disposition Commission, including: (1) resentencing certain inmates; (2) establishing youthful age of defendant as a mitigating factor in sentencing; (3) retroactively rescinding or modifying mandatory terms of parole eligibility; and (4) studying compassionate release programs and possible elimination of mandatory minimum terms.
- Municipal Court: Supporting implementation of the recommendations of the Supreme Court Committee on Municipal Court Operations, Fines, and Fees, and the Working Group on the Municipal Courts, to amend statutes regarding (1) penalties for violations of municipal ordinances that may be prescribed by a municipality; (2) consequences of nonpayment; (3) incarceration for default on certain penalties (to increase the incarceration conversion rate); and (4) potential consolidation of municipal courts.
- Reentry: Supporting a fair start for persons in treatment and recovery through various means, including: (1) modifying legal consequences associated with marijuana offenses; (2) expanding the availability of expungements to include graduates of the Intensive Supervision Program (ISP); and (3) permitting those admitted into court-ordered supervisory treatment programs for drug/alcohol dependency to earn credit against amounts owed on court-imposed financial obligations.
- Law Enforcement Decisions About Whom to Arrest and Prosecute.
Supporting efforts by the Attorney General to examine both identified and unintended factors that influence decisions about arrest and prosecution, recognizing that those early decision points affect the racial disparity that exists in New Jersey’s jails where Black defendants still represent 55 percent of the jail population even though there are fewer defendants of all races and both genders in jail today under Criminal Justice Reform. Acknowledging that potential initial disparities in arrest and prosecution contribute to future disparities throughout the criminal justice process. Continuing ongoing cooperation of all decision-makers within the criminal justice system and analysis of the disparities at each step in the arrest, prosecution, and pretrial process.
The New Jersey Supreme Court recognizes that this effort “will require continued long-term commitment, dedication, and focus to institute lasting change.” Today, the Court announces an action plan to support such lasting change, bringing together critical self-exploration and dialogue, targeted short-term goals, and renewed commitment to eliminating systemic barriers to equality.