Profile: Shouldering Responsibility for Parole Officers and Parolees

Ron Marsico | February 18, 2020 | Profiles
James Dickinson takes over as director of the Divisions of Parole and Community Programs at New Jersey State Parole Board

Who: James Dickinson

Hometown: East Greenwich Township, Gloucester County

Age: 51

Family: Married, five children

What he does: Director of the New Jersey State Parole Board’s Divisions of Parole and Community Programs, overseeing nearly 400 sworn law-enforcement parole officers and their commanders, with responsibility for supervising more than 15,500 parolees.

The road to director: Dickinson earned a BA in sociology from Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa., and joined the parole board in 1991. After his initial training, Dickinson worked at district offices in Camden, Atlantic City, Jersey City and elsewhere. He was promoted to sergeant in 2000 and lieutenant in 2008, overseeing the agency’s 6th District office in Trenton. In 2016, he advanced to captain, responsible for various parole units, including sex offender supervision and community programs.

“I came in this agency prior to us being armed, back in the early ‘90s,’’ recalled Dickinson. “Just watching the growth of this agency, is a big, great thing.”

Embracing reforms: Dickinson’s career has spanned transformational changes in the way the state and nation view the criminal justice system, reform initiatives and jail sentences. These include a reassessment of harsh sentencing laws, particularly for nonviolent offenders, and an emphasis on providing parolees with education, job-training and treatment programs for mental health and addiction issues.

“Sooner or later, they have to come out,’’ said Dickinson. “They’re going to live … in the same communities we all live in … When you can try to adjust somebody’s behavior and give them those tools that they need to make it out in society, it makes it a lot better for not just them, but for us.”

Gov. Phil Murphy and the Legislature recently enacted “Earn Your Way Out,’’ a law that will take effect next year and provide a presumption of parole for many offenders jailed for nonviolent offenses. It also requires an “individualized re-entry plan’’ for every inmate.

“As an agency, we’re going to continue to try to re-integrate all who are released on supervision back into community, no matter race, color, creed,’’ said Dickinson. “We’re trying just to help them all.”

What’s more, a new state law giving parolees the right to vote means the parole board will now advise them on their re-enfranchisement rights at the start of their parole, rather than upon completion.

Emphasis on skills training and treatment: “You don’t want someone having that negative thought of law enforcement, that all we do is punish individuals,’’ said Dickinson. “We’re here to try to help them re-assimilate back in the community and be positive individuals.”

Over the past decade, the number of New Jersey offenders on parole has stayed consistent between 15,000 and 16,000 annually, even as the number of prisoners continues dropping. But the pool of annual parole revocations has shrunk from nearly a third circa 2000 to about 10% now.

Reform advocates give much of the credit for New Jersey’s drop in recidivism to increased residential and community programs to help parolees transition back to life after prison. Enhanced programs to help address substance abuse and mental health issues also have played a key role, reformers say.

Dickinson is a strong proponent of closely supervising parolees, touting, for example, the use of GPS to monitor their whereabouts, even though it causes some parolees to bristle.

“We’re just trying to avoid those entrapments that a lot of people fall into without supervision — get back into the criminal activity,’’ said Dickinson.

Important goals: Dickinson said a key goal of his is to expand programs for inmates to help them battle drug addictions, particularly to opioids, to “help these individuals kick the habit and get back into society.”

The new director also said he would like to expand contracts with facilities that can provide mental health services to parolees.

More staffing and resources: Changes in the law will mean increased workloads for Dickinson’s team, as more parolees leave the state’s jails.

A fiscal assessment accompanying the new “Earn Your Way Out’’ law predicted the number of parolees the board handles could increase by more than 1,900 annually. If that’s the case, yearly expenditures could climb by as much as $16.6 million, or more than $8,500 per parolee.

“We always can use more resources to assist individuals,’’ said Dickinson. “The more resources we have, the better we can provide that assistance and services, and improve services to clients.’’

Pride and responsibility: “When you’re able to go up the line and do the 30 years and make director, it’s a proud moment,’’ said Dickinson.

“I’ve been able to develop solid relationships with the different officers and supervisors in this agency,” continued Dickinson, while noting a special obligation to deliver on his leadership. “I feel like I owe them the best that I can give them, so their confidence and respect in me is not lost.’’

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