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A Close Look at NJ's Troubled Correctional Halfway Houses

Strident hearing on halfway houses raises questions about security, management, staff, and even effectiveness.

Private operators of New Jersey correctional halfway houses said their problems are few and the savings for the state are real, but a legislative hearing produced “plenty of raw material” for bills to tighten state oversight of the system.

Chairman Robert Gordon (D-Bergen) and other members of the Senate Legislative Committee agreed that the community “re-entry” facilities for offenders have been more beneficial than simply warehousing them in prisons.

But hours of wildly conflicting testimony about security at some facilities, along with sketchier descriptions of their finances and costs, highlighted the need for closer monitoring, according to Gordon. The hearing was prompted in part by a series of critical articles in The New York Times last month.

At a time when about 10,000 of the state's roughly 24,000 prison inmates are placed in halfway houses for some period, the study cited instances of violent crimes and lax controls.

An Open Question

In particular, “it’s still an open question” whether the state Department of Corrections should contract out its responsibilities to for-profit businesses, Gordon said. When government functions are privatized to commercial firms, “there’s always going to be a tension between profit and public goals.”

John Clancy, head of embattled Community Education Centers, a for-profit firm that has been able to obtain corrections contracts by creating a non-profit arm, said he is “very proud of having devoted my career” to helping inmates re-enter society.

“In my opinion, all offenders leaving prison should go through the re-entry system” of halfway houses to get counseling, training and treatment, he said.

Law enforcement officials described a far less wholesome situation. New Jersey’s extensive halfway houses “have become nothing more than private prisons without rules,” said Rich Brown, head of the state Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association corrections committee.

Legislators and witnesses referred repeatedly to reports in the Times, which noted high-profile crimes committed by inmates who simply “walked away” from halfway houses after being shifted there from prison.

But the most extensive testimony came from state Comptroller Matthew Boxer, who issued a less-celebrated report a year ago detailing haphazard oversight by the state Department of Corrections, especially of contract compliance and bills from the non-profit and for-profit firms.

His auditors found “the department had not been adequately overseeing the program,” Boxer told a standing-room-only crowd in the Statehouse Annex. But in the wake of such findings, Boxer added that the Corrections Department promptly moved to address many of the problems.

But he said the department still lacks sufficient data to evaluate how well the halfway houses, and the corrections system overall, are handling some key issues raised during the hearing and in the reports.

No Law at All

In contrast to the “highly, highly regulated” procedures for most state procurement, overseen by the Treasury Department, Boxer found “no state law at all” governing the Corrections Department’s outside contracts.

Corrections Commissioner Gary Lanigan said he already was tightening procurement before Boxer’s audit, and has since implemented 32 of 35 recommendations. By data the department does have, the performance has improved in recent years, including a decline in inmates walking away from halfway houses, he said.

Of roughly 2,400 such cases since 2005, most returned or were apprehended within a week, and all were “immediately entered in the NCIC (National Crime Information Center) database to ensure notification to all law enforcement personnel.”

Using available statistics, corrections and the halfway house system can cite some dramatic gains compared to the most of the country. At a time when the United States incarcerates by far the highest percentage of its population of any country, according to the International Centre for Prison Studies, New Jersey’s has been declining.

From a high of about 31,000 inmates in 1999, the drop to roughly 24,000 inmates is the most of any state. A recent study by the Pew Center for the States also cited an 11.4 percent drop in recidivism as the best in the Northeast and fifth best in the nation.

“We have an open dialogue with our vendors” on costs and operational issues,” Lanigan said. “They’re not just our vendors, they’re our partners.”

Others in law enforcement were skeptical, although their criticism was not entirely directed at the department and the operators.

Some counties are using halfway houses as lower-cost holding areas for people arrested but not yet tried for violent crimes, said Joseph Amato, president of the union local that represents Essex County corrections officers.

The large Delaney Hall halfway house in Newark “is already a jail,” Amato said. “This morning, of a population of 798, there were only 36 who had been sentenced. The rest are all pre-adjudicated, awaiting trial.”

The county also receives payments for accepting federal inmates and detained immigrants, and using the halfway house makes more space available. The Times cited the case of a barber arrested for traffic violations who was robbed and killed in Delaney House in 2009. The state did not penalize the facility.

No Incentives

For their part, halfway houses have an incentive not to perform the rigorous checks on new residents that operators described as part of their procedures, Amato said. The steady stream of inmates to fill every bed “is profit,” he said.

Delaney Hall is run by Community Education Centers, the largest of the state’s private vendors, whose operations and financial stability have been questioned by the Times.

On Monday, the newspaper reported that the firm defaulted on its debt in 2009, and in an effort to secure new financing, touted close ties to the newly elected governor, Chris Christie. Christie’s former law partner and political mentor William Palatucci, is CEC’s senior vice president.

Clancy, the firm’s chief executive, called the stories “totally, totally wrong.” On finances, though, he said only that CEC is on “very friendly terms with our lenders.”

Clancy was more aggressive in rebutting allegations of unsafe conditions and failure to provide contracted counseling and training to inmates, the reason for the existence of halfway houses.

Violent incidents and even murders happen, but are rare, he said. As for reports of drug use and gang activity in halfway houses, some of that comes with the territory in trying to help people overcome past mistakes, he said.

“There are gang members in every facility in New Jersey,” Clancy said. “There are gang members in every facility in the country.”

Sen. Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex) said she was taken aback by reports that other residents and even staff members fear for their safety in some of the halfway houses. She questioned whether staffers need additional training for their own protection, or guards on the premises.

Pressed by Gordon on the issue of creating “hybrid” facilities with increased security, Lanigan said that is something he is willing to discuss.

Donald Ryland, a Mercer County PBA local president, said that might again be taking the long way around. With indications rife of drug use of other problems in a Trenton halfway house, the first step should be better screening, he said.

“If you don’t put the bad characters in there to begin with, there’s less need for guards,” Ryland said.

Describing the hearing as a first step, Gordon said committee members will strongly consider suggestions that corrections switch to performance-based contracts, penalizing operators and screeners for violent incidents and other infractions.

Shortly before the hearing, as Christie signed legislation for a drug court, he suggested expanding the halfway house system. Gordon said there is no reason to fight the governor on that issue.

“He sounds like a Democrat, but he has to commit the resources,” Gordon said. “If there are problems in the system, we want to fix them before there’s an influx of new people.”

During three decades reporting in New Jersey, Joe Tyrrell has covered everything from Avon to Zarephath, with a particular emphasis on politics and government, the environment and agriculture. He founded the New Jersey Foundation for Open Government, which unites civic groups, citizens and journalists to promote transparency and ethics.

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