Prison Re-entry Group Outlines Blueprint to Benefit Former Inmates

Former Gov. McGreevey and other ex-execs offer blueprint for economic, health gains

Credit: Stefanie Campolo
Former Gov. Jim McGreevey (left), chairman of the New Jersey Reentry Corp. (NJRC), with Omari Atiba, a former client
New Jersey now spends more than $1 billion annually on a network of corrections programs, but at least half of those who have been behind bars are likely to be re-arrested within three years, a cycle that costs the state hundreds of millions of dollars annually.

That’s according to a new report from the New Jersey Reentry Corp., which argues these public resources could be better spent on efforts to improve basic education, expand vocational training, help former inmates access effective healthcare — including treatment for mental illness and substance-use disorders, which affect as many as three out of four prisoners.

Six pilot programs

The report, “Reentry: From Prison to the Streets, Making it Work,” outlined plans for pilot programs at six sites that would test efforts to connect one-time prisoners with targeted training and job placement, healthcare case management, and more. It also points to a need for better coordination between re-entry efforts and programs run by the state corrections officials and calls for an interagency panel in the governor’s office to oversee the mission long-term.

Former Gov. James McGreevey, chairman of the Reentry Corp., a group established two years ago to help build on the state’s existing re-entry efforts, joined several other former governors who also serve as board members, nonprofit partners, and corporation clients on Wednesday in Newark to release the 34-page report. If fully implemented, the recommendations could actually save the state nearly $190 million a year, the report’s author estimated.

The NJRC runs six sites that offer aspects of these programs already, but McGreevey said the new document is a blueprint for taking these efforts to the next level. While Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, founded the corporation and has been an avid supporter, Democrat McGreevey said the report – which includes several recommendations for state action and a request for $3.5 million in funding – is directed at the next governor, who will be taking over in mid-January.

“This is an integrated model that provides for a unified delivery structure for these seven services,” McGreevey explained, noting that the NJRC has recognized that certain building blocks must be in place for a former inmate to be successful outside of prison: addiction services, sober housing, training and employment, Medicaid and a connection to a Federally Qualified Health Center, an I.D. card from the Motor Vehicle Commission, help with legal services, and mentoring. (Their work attracted praise from former President Barack Obama, when he visited New Jersey in late 2015.)

‘The next generation’

“The healthcare component is the next generation and absolutely essential with the addiction crisis,” McGreevey added, noting that the pilot programs would help clients obtain insurance, but also connect with services, including medication-assisted treatment, in which prescription drugs are used to help ease heroin cravings, now considered the clinical gold standard. “We’re doing so many things right and we are still losing clients to overdoses,” he added.

Former Republican Gov. Tom Kean, a board member, also endorsed the plan in a letter; former Govs. Jon S. Corzine and James Florio, both Democrats, and former acting Gov. Donald DiFrancesco, a Republican, also attended the release. “The NJRC report recognizes the formidable gains New Jersey has made to assist the formerly incarcerated,” Kean wrote, noting that it also “provides valuable research and a practical path to enhance our success to date.”

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Some 41,000 men and women are now behind bars in New Jersey’s state, county, and municipal corrections facilities, according to the report, and it costs nearly $53,700 a year to house each person in these sites. The population has the greatest racial disparity in the country, with more than 12 black prisoners for every white inmate.

Once people have been incarcerated, the challenges to re-entry and future success become even more extreme – and nearly one-third end up back in prison within a few years. A lack of education and job skills is one problem; nearly 40 percent of those released have not completed high school and fewer than one in 10 have college experience. Poor health is another concern, since one-third of former inmates have a physical or mental disability and half suffer a chronic health condition, other than addiction.

“Almost all our clients are super-utilizers,” McGreevey said, using the term given to patients who have significant healthcare needs and absorb much of the medical resources. (Studies have shown 5 percent of Medicaid patients account for some 50 percent of the program’s costs.)

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To address these challenges, the report calls for a three-year pilot program that would link vocational and technical schools in six counties (Hudson, Essex, Camden, Gloucester, Middlesex, and Union) with manufacturing and other industries that need to grow their trained workforces. Together they will develop specific training program with room for nearly three-dozen former inmates at each school. At the end, the onetime felons will have their GED and be trained in a well-paying field.

The program — slated to cost $2.3 million per year — is based on studies that show education and quality job training can be effective in reducing re-arrest and future incarceration by as much as 50 percent.

Healthcare outcomes

The report also advocates for a second, but affiliated pilot program to improve healthcare outcomes for former inmates; it would operate at the same six sites and focus on the same group of clients. Despite the high rate of substance-use disorders and other chronic health conditions, studies show up to half of inmates do not receive proper care while behind bars and as many as 70 percent still lack health insurance eight months after leaving prison.

To address this, each site would include a healthcare team with a licensed social worker, registered nurse, and case manager who could help former inmates enroll in Medicaid (almost all are eligible), access care at a local FQHC or other healthcare facility, resolve billing disputes, track medications and more. This work would cost $1.2 million annually, much of which could be covered through Medicaid.

In addition, the report urges better coordination among corrections, parole and re-entry programs. Corrections can help ensure that individuals who are still in jail get healthcare, training and other services in advance of their release, reducing the shock for those who are released and need re-entry support later on.

The group also called on the state to boost the use of parole, in which offenders are released to serve part of their sentence in the community, since parolees are more than one-third less likely to reoffend, studies show. As it is, more than 40 percent of New Jersey prisoners “max out” or spend their full sentence behind bars, the highest rate nationwide.

Finally, the group called for the establishment of an interagency committee of former governors and cabinet members who could oversee this effort long term and collaborate with business leaders to help ensure former inmates are connected to the workforce. “The needs of the re-entry population often impact one another, (but) the efforts of individual agencies and service providers are too often disjointed, inefficient and short-lived,” the report notes.

The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment on the report, but Christie has focused heavily in the past year on efforts to address addiction, including programs designed to help those enmeshed in the criminal justice system. He has expanded “drug courts” that aim to divert nonviolent offenders with substance-use issues from the criminal justice system to treatment and founded what may be the nation’s first prison with a dedicated focus on addiction treatment.