The New Jersey Supreme Court, which was among the courts across the country that spoke out about racial justice in the wake of George Floyd’s death and issued a set of reforms intended to bring about equal justice in the court system one year ago, has recently announced a new series of initiatives designed to support fairness and equity within the judicial system.
The announcement comes one year after the court issued its inaugural Action Plan for Ensuring Equal Justice, which identified nine items aimed at eliminating disparities within the court system and removing institutional obstacles to justice.
The judiciary now claims it achieved measurable results for all nine items, including both short-term improvements and long-term reforms.
“Despite the challenges of a global pandemic, the judiciary worked hard this past year to attempt to lift some of the burdens that fall disproportionately on Black and Latino individuals in our communities,” said Chief Justice Stuart Rabner. “Building on the framework and principles of last year’s action plan, the court has again committed itself to a series of initiatives designed to foster a justice system that is accessible, equitable, and free from structural barriers and bias.”
The nine new reforms outlined in the 2021 Action Plan are designed to improve equity for people of color, as well as for persons affected by mental health conditions, addiction, and the challenges associated with poverty.
The new plan includes initiatives that would:
- support employment and job training opportunities for clients and graduates of judiciary drug court and probation programs.
- improve procedural safeguards for individuals with mental health challenges who come into contact with the justice system..
- expand access to legal representation at all levels of the courts.
- require implicit bias training for all state court employees.
Rabner thanked Judge Glenn A. Grant, acting administrative director of the courts, for his leadership in implementing the reforms outlined in the 2020 Action Plan.
Among the immediate, tangible benefits achieved during the past year were a court order that vacated all outstanding discretionary juvenile fines, the use of technology to enable access to expungements, and the early termination of probation supervision for individuals who achieved critical rehabilitative goals and met other relevant criteria.
In other long-term areas, such as reforms to jury selection and improvements to landlord tenant processes, the judiciary has begun to collect data to evaluate the result of its efforts.
The 2021 Action Plan, as well as a complete status report on the progress made on last year’s plan, is available at njcourts.gov
The 2020 action plan identified nine reforms that would:
- support juror impartiality by implementing policies and protocols so that juror orientation, model jury charges, jury selection questions and the juror selection process include a focus on impartiality and implicit bias.
- reduce timeframes for post-dispositional supervision for persons on probation supervision, such as graduates of the Drug Court Program and Intensive Supervision Program, to ensure that supervisory terms are tailored to provide maximum benefit without prolonging court involvement that does not contribute to rehabilitation.
- support juvenile rehabilitation by examining options for retroactively rescinding and prospectively eliminating court-imposed punitive fines and penalties for juveniles where appropriate.
- require anti-bias Continuing Legal Education for judges and attorneys.
- utilize new technology to make the expungement process easier and improve opportunities for all persons to access expungement resources.
- enable alternative methods of resolving court matters to reduce the need for litigants to appear in person at municipal courts.
- broaden language access resources to provide more detailed guidance on interpreting services for remote court proceedings.
- reexamine access to court records that create inappropriate hardships for disadvantaged populations, such as landlord/tenant complaint filings that do not note the outcome of the matter.
- improve the landlord/tenant process 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.