Prison Reentry Programs Benefit Former Inmates and Their Communities

At NJ Spotlight On Cities, two new approaches to breaking the cycle of recidivism are discussed in depth

Former Gov. Jim McGreevey (left) and U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman discuss prisoner reentry; panel moderator Lilo H. Stainton is at center.
A new approach is needed to break the cycle of crime and incarceration that affects tens of thousands of Garden State families over generations, while crippling urban communities with sustained violence, substance abuse, and poverty.

That message underscored the spirited discussion between U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman and former Gov. Jim McGreevey on the challenges created when prisoners return to their old neighborhoods — and the ways government can help ease this transition. Both have significant experience with different aspects of criminal justice and now oversee separate prison reentry programs that have been praised for their success.

“We need to do more than just arrest and incarcerate,” Fishman said Friday during a prison reentry panel at the NJ Spotlight On Cities conference, held at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark. (Note: The author served as moderator for this panel.)

The statistics clearly illustrate the nature of the problem, speakers agreed: Of the more than 10,000 inmates released each year in New Jersey, nearly seven out of 10 will be re-arrested and some four out of 10 will go back to prison. The cycle is fueled by the fact that most prisoners leave jail without a high-school education, useful job skills, or even a home to return to. Some two-thirds are saddled with drug addictions.

“They basically walk out [of jail] with nothing,” said McGreevey, now Executive Director of the Jersey City Employment and Training Program, which has helped scores of former inmates reintegrate into society. “Without reentry programs, you’re condemning people to complete the same hellish cycle.”

While some inmates leave prison on parole — which is designed to help former inmates stay straight and become self-sufficient — the majority, roughly 70 percent, are released without any true government oversight. Regulations require prison officials to provide departing convicts with identification and resources to connect with housing, counseling, and other services. Former inmates say that in reality these efforts fall far short.

Fortunately for the audience of several dozen at Friday’s event, Fishman and McGreevey could also offer examples of successful programs at work. The Jersey City program, which won a $4.3 million contract this summer to expand services in the region, connects former offenders with a comprehensive mix of drug abuse counseling, education and job-skills training, housing assistance, health insurance, and legal assistance to help secure a drivers license, or arrange for child support payments or other fines.

JCETP staff will knit together diverse government and nonprofit services to help former inmates succeed, McGreevey said, but these clients must also commit to stay clean and work hard. “You walk through the door and you have an obligation and we have an obligation. We’re going to make government work for you,” he said, noting the program has an impressive recidivism rate of only 22 percent — roughly half the state average.

Tracking outcomes is critical, McGreevey said, but so is changing the perspective of the law enforcement officials involved throughout the process. The focus should be on helping people succeed in life on the outside, not in racking up more prosecutions or returning more parolees to prison.

“It sounds simple, but it’s profound: When you change the matrix by which you determine your success or failure collectively, you break down that individual perspective,” he said. “I think we need to measure our success differently.”

Perhaps one of the most profound reentry efforts is the ReNew program, which Fishman launched three years ago in Newark. Twice a month, some two dozen or so former federal prisoners gather in courtroom 2a to meet with the very team that sent them to jail years ago — only now it is to get help staying straight. A federal judge, Fishman’s staff and others are on hand to connect onetime offenders to housing programs, substance abuse help, educational opportunities, and more.

“The last question is always: What else can we do for you? How can we help you to succeed?” Fishman said. “There’s a group dynamic that forms, which is a goal of the program: People want to see each other succeed.”

Fishman said he started the program — which he “shamelessly stole from the U.S. Attorney in Philadelphia” — after considering how this cycle of incarceration impacts communities, not just individual prisoners. For federal prisoners, 95 percent will some day be released and at some point, “they’re going to be your neighbor,” he said.

Most white-collar criminals return to “relatively intact family structures. They probably have more money. They probably have friends who are not criminal defendants. They have something to come back to,” Fishman explained. “But for people of color from low-income neighborhoods, that’s not always the case,” he continued. Without an education or skills, “these people can’t succeed on the outside. They don’t have a way to make a living, a place to live, or people to support them.”

Fishman noted that without dedicated funding, there is only so much he can grow the ReNew program. But by carving out a portion of several staffers’ time, he has started a second program in Newark and also launched one in Camden earlier this year. “It’s not for us a numerical success. We’ve graduated 12 people in two years. We’re not changing the world here. But we are making the lives of those 12 people better, and hopefully the lives of those who will follow.”

McGreevey is also leading efforts to expand the model used at JCETP to other urban areas in the state as part of the ReEntry Corp., a nonprofit organization established by Gov. Chris Christie and lead by McGreeey and five other former governors. McGreevey praised Christie’s commitment to the issue and his inclusion of an additional $3.5 million in this year’s budget for the new programs.

“This isn’t a partisan issue,” McGreevey said, noting that drug abuse — and related crime — has skyrocketed in traditionally white, Republican areas like Cape May and Ocean counties. “Maybe it was convenient to ignore when it was an urban — read black — problem, but this is a New Jersey problem.”

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