Lawmakers Pursue ‘Social Justice’ Through Prison Reforms

Colleen O'Dea | November 20, 2019 | Social
New Jersey continues to incarcerate African Americans and Latinos at far greater rates than whites

New Jersey lawmakers are continuing to pursue prison reform, most recently by advancing measures that would make it easier for nonviolent offenders to be paroled, give all former inmates re-entry plans and make college classes more affordable to those in prison.

The state has already implemented a number of criminal-justice and prison reforms in recent years, including the virtual elimination of cash bail and shortening of the expungement process. Four months ago, Gov. Phil Murphy signed legislation putting limits on the use of solitary confinement in correctional facilities.

The state’s prison population has dropped significantly. Yet New Jersey continues to incarcerate African Americans and Latinos at far greater rates than whites, leading advocates to call reforms a social-justice issue.

Former Gov. Jim McGreevey, who heads the New Jersey Reentry Corporation, said the state’s prison population “reflects deep social problems of race, poverty and the failure of our social institutions to provide for New Jerseyans in a way that would reduce the rates of incarceration in the first place … New Jersey’s prisons and jails reflect the worst racial disparity in the nation.”

Last Thursday, the Assembly Appropriations Committee advanced two bills that sponsors said would help reduce those racial disparities by helping those who are incarcerated and reducing recidivism rates. The Senate passed the measures 17 months ago, so the committee’s approval positions them for final passage before the end of the legislative session.

Most significantly, the measure entitled Earn Your Way Out (A-1986) would require the state Department of Corrections to develop re-entry plans for inmates to ease their transition out of prison and also establish a presumption of parole for nonviolent offenders who haven’t committed any serious infractions for at least two years and meet other criteria. No hearing would be necessary; Anyone denied administrative parole would have to be given the reasons and would have the ability to appeal the decision.

Raymond Lesniak, the former longtime state senator from Union County who sponsored the bill in the previous legislative session, told the committee last week that the presumption is needed because sometimes even model prisoners are “arbitrarily denied” release by the state Parole Board. Lesniak’s bill was conditionally vetoed in May 2017 by former Gov. Chris Christie, who wrote that the decision to release someone on parole “should not be based on an automatic presumption in favor of release, nor should the decision be rushed.”

A Lone ‘no’ Vote

Assemblyman Harold Wirths (R-Sussex) was the only committee member to vote against the bill, saying it “does not offer any meaningful input from victims” on an individual’s release — victims’ statements are considered in parole decisions under the current system.

“The rights of victims should come first,” Wirths said.

But the conservative Americans For Prosperity group backed the bill as a money saver — it costs some $50,000 each a year to incarcerate some 19,000 people in New Jersey’s prisons.

McGreevey said some 1,500 nonviolent offenders could be released if the measure is enacted.

Former Gov. Jim McGreevey, left, at the Assembly Appropriations Committee hearing

“What we do here today is terribly important,” he told committee members. “Releasing people from prison is a primary objective … Prisons are corrupting places, so this is critically important.”

The measure also would require Corrections to prepare a re-entry plan for each inmate to act as a road map for receiving all the services needed to succeed upon release. These may include drug- or alcohol-addiction treatment, education, job training, housing and other needs. A required re-entry plan as part of the Earn Your Way Out bill was one of 100 recommendations from the report released last month by the Reentry Services Commission, a 14-member body created last December by the Legislature to improve the odds of success for those released from incarceration.

Support is needed

“The majority of the more than 10,000 inmates who are released from prison each year in New Jersey will be rearrested, and two in five will return to prison,” said Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter (D-Passaic), a sponsor of the Earn Your Way Out bill. “It’s critical that we stop this woeful pattern by making sure that these men and women have the education, job skills and other resources they need in order to be productive members of society after leaving prison.”

Another key provision would enable eligible parolees to earn compliance credits for successfully meeting all conditions of parole and not committing any serious infractions — one day for each six days of parole supervision. That could reduce their time on parole by as many as five days for each month they remain in compliance.

The nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services could not calculate the fiscal impact of the bill. Money would be saved by paroling inmates and reducing the number of parole hearings, but at least some of that would likely have to pay for additional parole support and for a database of inmate disciplinary actions that the law would require. At least a portion of any cost savings would go to the Office of Victim Services to help crime victims in their recovery.

Upon the committee’s 9-1 vote to approve the bill, the standing-room-only crowd in the hearing room erupted into applause.

Financial aid for college

The other measure passed by the committee (A-3722) would permit prison inmates to receive state financial aid to enable them to take college courses offered behind bars. Currently, a state law prohibits prisoners from receiving either state grants or scholarships, most notably Tuition Assistance Grants for those of low income.

College courses are offered in seven of New Jersey’s correctional facilities through the New Jersey Scholarship and Transformative Education in Prisons Consortium, or NJ-STEP. According to the NJ-STEP website, Drew University, Princeton University, Raritan Valley Community College and Rutgers University currently offer instruction. In past years, about 550 inmates were enrolled.

NJ-STEP is funded largely by nonprofit foundations, while some students also get federal aid in the form of Second Chance Pell Grants, a pilot program the Obama administration began in 2016. Rutgers University-Newark provides most of the funding to administer the program. More courses could be offered if a more stable form of funding were available.

According to Sen. Sandra Cunningham (D-Hudson), who has championed the measure in the Senate, studies show that every $1 invested in correctional education programs resulted in as much as a $5 dollar reduction in state incarceration costs during the first three years of a prisoner’s release.

The Reentry Services Commission also called for the passage of this measure.