Commission Finds 100 Ways to Aid Re-Entry of Ex-Prisoners

Colleen O'Dea | October 23, 2019 | Social
More than 9,000 inmates were released from state prisons last year and some 86,000 passed through county jails
Credit: NJTV News
Renault McCord: “I have cried many times, sad tears. These are happy tears. I am so grateful.”

A legislatively mandated commission on Tuesday recommended that New Jersey take 100 steps to improve re-entry services for those released from prison, from improving health care and addiction treatment to creating more opportunities for training and employment.

The 100-page report of the Reentry Services Commission, a 14-member body created last December by a unanimous Legislature, did not provide a price tag for its recommendations. And some — including additional medication-assisted treatment for addicts and more relevant employment training — could be costly. But the report does suggest ways to fund or defray expenses.

Former Gov. Jim McGreevey, a co-chair of the commission who also heads the New Jersey Reentry Corporation, said costs could be offset by savings derived from not having to re-incarcerate those who otherwise would not make it outside of prison.

A report by the Vera Institute put the cost of incarcerating an individual in New Jersey at about $55,000 in 2012. McGreevey said re-entry services cost $2,000 per person, but there are even more savings to be had in keeping people from re-incarceration.

“It’s the cost to the criminal-justice system — the cost of prosecutors, public defenders, court time —  the cost to address criminal activity, whether it’s personal property, whether it’s the individual effect upon the victim,” McGreevey said.

A success story

Renault McCord is the embodiment of why New Jersey needs to provide the best re-entry services possible.

One of 14 children, McCord grew up in one of Jersey City’s tougher neighborhoods and began dealing drugs in his teens because it seemed like an easy way to get ahead.

“My mom didn’t teach me to do the things that I did to send me to prison,” McCord, who has been working as a chef at Shop-Rite in Newark for four years, told those who gathered in Trenton to discuss the report’s recommendations.

“We really were a close-knit family, but … I wasn’t afforded some of the things other smaller families’ kids had,” he said. “At some point, around 13, 14, walking down the street, I would see drug dealers. They had nice cars, a lot of money, nice clothes. It seemed like the thing to do.”

Over the next three decades, McCord did four stints in jail for drug crimes. Each time he got out, he vowed to do better, but without a driver’s license, identification or Social Security card, he was unable to put his life right.

“I attempted to look for jobs, but the doors slammed in my face,” said McCord, who’s 45. “The stinkin’ thinkin’ crept back in.”

Facing his fifth sentence for an arrest in Hudson County, McCord asked the judge for help, saying, “In my heart, I really wanted to do the right thing,” but it would be impossible to make it on his own when he was released from prison with a bus pass and no job skills. The judge gave him a second chance when the New Jersey Reentry Corporation agreed to work with him.

Everything changed. McCord got into school, earned a culinary degree from Hudson County Community College, then got the job at Shop-Rite.

“The 17th of this month makes four years,” he said, tears trickling down his cheeks. “I have cried many times, sad tears. These are happy tears. I am so grateful.”

Release without support like ‘survival’ TV

Not all are as lucky as McCord. For those who don’t get assistance, the report paints a grim picture.

“Imagine yourself ‘dropped’ into any major city in New Jersey without any of the fundamentals of life: no money, no home, no job, and in many instances no family. For persons, who ‘max out,’ that is those serving the maximum of their sentence without the benefit of parole, their return from prison is roughly analogous to a ‘survival’ television series,” it reads.

According to the report, more than 9,000 inmates were released from state Department of Corrections’ control last year and some 86,000 passed through county jails. Currently, there are roughly 19,000 individuals in state correctional facilities, 3,200 from New Jersey in federal prisons, and 12,000 in the county jail system on any given day.

New Jersey has taken several steps over the years to try to improve re-entry, including a “ban the box” law that prohibits employers from asking about a job applicant’s criminal history on an initial application and making it easier to clear a past criminal record.

Still, the commission found much more needs to be done. The product of a series of hearings and research into best practices for life after incarceration, the report seeks to address the problems that make it harder to get a job and find housing and those that affect physical or mental health.

Addiction is common issue

Addiction affects roughly three quarters of those who are incarcerated, and four in 10 have a co-occurring mental illness, according to the report. It recommends a major expansion of the use of medication-assisted treatment for those suffering from addiction while still incarcerated and better coordination of treatment with providers outside of prison to keep individuals from relapsing on release.

Dr. Aakash Shah, NJ Reentry Corporation’s medical director and an emergency room physician by training, said the risk of a former inmate overdosing is 129 greater during the two weeks after release than at any other time. The report calls for making 24/7 substance-abuse treatment available within the community.

“It’s important to connect the treatment given behind the wall with what will be provided outside the wall so it is seamless,” McGreevey said.

Additionally, Shah said majorities of those incarcerated have physical illnesses, including asthma, HIV and hepatitis. While neighboring states screen all inmates for hepatitis, New Jersey does not, meaning it misses as many as a third of those infected.

“Hepatitis is a scourge, but it is a curable scourge,” said Shah. “But in order to treat it, you must screen for it.”

While there could be additional costs for medication-assisted treatment and handling hepatitis, Shah said that Louisiana was able to cut costs by negotiating drug prices with manufacturers and suggested New Jersey could do the same.

Among other recommendations, the report urges the prison system to allow the incarcerated to continue to take medications that had been prescribed to them prior to their entering the system, enrolling people in Medicaid at least 60 days prior to release and providing a Medicaid card and bridge prescriptions when they leave the system.

Education reforms needed, too

The report also recommends making education more readily available to those in prison and ensuring that individuals receive credit for that work by developing partnerships among community colleges, vocational schools and the state DOC. Access to state tuition assistance and scholarships should also be expanded.

Sen. Sandra Cunningham (D-Hudson), chair of the Senate Higher Education Committee, has sponsored legislation that would do the latter. She said she expects the measure (S-2055), which already cleared the Senate, to get final legislative approval during the lame-duck legislative session that will take place after next month’s election.

“These people, like everyone else, deserve the opportunity for a second chance,” said Cunningham, another commission co-chair. “They are human beings who may have made a mistake but who are standing here saying, ‘I have corrected myself.’”

Former Gov. Jim McGreevey heads the New Jersey Reentry Corporation.

McGreevey said it’s also important to improve the types of training available in prison so that individuals are prepared for real-world jobs that are in demand and to make it easier for individuals to get the professional licenses necessary for certain careers, like cosmetology for instance. Current law requires a person be of “good moral character” in order to get some licenses and incarceration can be a disqualifying factor.

“This puts them in an impossible position,” said Lawrence Lustberg, an attorney and co-author of the report.  “We as a society have created obstacles for people. These can and should go away.”

Debts can be daunting

Other obstacles include fines and fees resulting from a person’s crimes, repayment of the cost of a public defender and child-support obligations that continue to accrue while a person is incarcerated and cannot make payments. There are options for flexible repayment or forgiveness of public-defender costs that many former inmates don’t know about.

In the area of child support, Lustberg said a balance can be struck.

“Child support obligations need to be respected, but we should not make the obligation so daunting that it leads to hopelessness,” he said. “Make it a realistic obligation.”

Evelyn Padin, president of the New Jersey State Bar Association, spoke passionately in support of the recommendations.

“There is absolutely no reason why someone who has spent 20 years in jail still has municipal warrants outstanding,” she said. “It’s time that people who have paid their debt to society be welcomed back.”

A host of other recommendations address homelessness and finding affordable housing.

Assemblywoman Eliana Pintor Marin, another co-chair of the commission who is head of the budget committee in the lower house of the Legislature, said the report has given lawmakers ideas for improving re-entry, as well as ways to pay for the suggestions.

“How do we find the resources to make sure our programs are running properly and have adequate funding?” she said. “We had not thought about talking to the drug manufacturers” to try to get a better price on medication-assisted drug treatment.

McGreevey said the commission has already been working with the state Department of Human Services on some of its recommendations and will push for reforms among lawmakers and the governor.

“Governor Murphy looks forward to carefully reviewing the recommendations in the report and will continue the ongoing work to ensure people returning home are equipped with the tools and resources necessary to be successful after incarceration,” said Alexandra Altman, the governor’s deputy press secretary.

Action urged on five bills

The report calls for passage of five bills currently pending in the Legislature:

  • Earn Your Way Out Act 2019 (S-761/A-1986): Requires the Department of Corrections to develop an inmate re-entry plan by instituting a Division of Reentry and Rehabilitative Services. The measure has passed the Senate and is pending before the Assembly Appropriations committee.
  • Expungement Revision Bill 2019 (S-3205/A-4498): Revises the procedures and policies of the state expungement law allowing for a wider availability for record clearing for non-violent offenders. The measure was conditionally vetoed by Gov. Phil Murphy.
  • Medicated Eligibility for Incarcerated Individuals 2018 (S-1182/A-3568): Requires establishment of processes to identify Medicaid-eligible incarcerated individuals who are awaiting pre-trial release determinations, are being released following period of incarceration, or are undergoing inpatient hospital treatment. No action yet taken.
  •  Occupational Licensing for Incarcerated Individuals 2019 (S-1589/A-3872): Requires changes to the standards used by professional and occupational boards when considering applicants with criminal history records, including specifically eliminating the “good moral character” requirement. Passed by the Senate.
  • Dignity for Incarcerated Primary Caretaker Parents Act 2019 (S-2540/A-3979): Ensures that all incarcerated women receive free feminine-hygiene products and prohibits the practice of chaining inmates while they are giving birth. Passed by the Assembly and now before the Senate Budget committee.