Activists fight budget cuts to inmate transitional programs

Colleen O'Dea, Reporter | September 16, 2020 | Budget, More Issues
Many wonder why NJ would hamper efforts that keep inmates from returning to prisons
Credit: Volunteers of America Delaware Valley
Garrett House in Camden, one of only two women’s community release programs in the state that provide substance use disorder treatment, is in danger of closing if budget cuts are enacted.

New Jersey’s proposed budget counts on about $60 million in cuts to corrections and parole programs, but some advocates and lawmakers are questioning the wisdom of reducing programs that have proven effective in preventing inmates from re-offending.

Officials with the state’s nonprofit community release programs say a suggested $26 million reduction in funds to halfway houses — on top of a more than $1 million cut since July 1 — would force the closure of two women’s facilities and hurt other programs as well. State officials counter that New Jersey is already paying halfway houses for beds that are going unused and the cuts are a justifiable way to save money.

“Due to the pandemic and limitations on transfers to halfway houses, the Residential Community Release Programs experienced an increase in vacancies,” Marcus Hicks, commissioner of the state Department of Corrections, told the Senate Budget and Appropriations during a hearing on the department’s proposed budget last Thursday. He called the halfway houses “critical transitional resource in support of reentry and recidivism reduction.”

Melinda Caliendo, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Treasury, said that on July 1, 2019, the state contracted with 16 halfway houses, which had a population of 2,724. Now the state uses 14 halfway houses — about half run by private, for-profit companies and the other half by nonprofits — and by contract these facilities can accommodate 2,400 individuals. Between early releases resulting from an executive order designed to limit the spread of COVID-19 among the incarcerated and the DOC’s suspension of transfers to these locations, also to limit the spread, they are more than half vacant, with at most 1,100 beds filled now, Hicks said.

“Until recently, the department continued to pay for these vacant beds,” he continued. “The department will realize additional efficiencies during this fiscal crisis by only paying for actual housing usage as a temporary cost-saving measure. This reduction would not impact inmate programs. It is our hope that this would be a one-time reduction and that the department could increase support for these crucial programs when the resident population increases.”

Facilities for women under threat

But officials from two nonprofit groups that operate programs, New Jersey Association on Correction and Volunteers of America Delaware Valley, warned that if the cuts are enacted they would result in the immediate closure of Millicent Fenwick House in Paterson and Garrett House in Camden, the only women’s community release programs in the state that provide substance use disorder treatment.

Credit: NJAC
Millicent Fenwick House, Paterson

“Closing halfway houses is like killing the goose that lays the golden egg,” said Daniel L. Lombardo, president and CEO of Volunteers of America Delaware Valley, which operates three community facilities in South Jersey. “This is the entity that’s gotten most folks successfully reintegrated into society.”

In written testimony submitted to the committee, which is not holding public hearings due to the compressed time frame of the budget process, Lombardo wrote that the recidivism rates for those released from VOADV facilities is 19% for men and 5% for women, compared with an overall New Jersey rate of 31%. Halfway houses also had significantly lower COVID-19 infection rates than prisons, he added.

“It is unconscionable that those returning to society are paying the price by eliminating the very programs that ensure their success following release, while that State is prioritizing more costly services with far less positive outcomes,” Lombardo wrote. The nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services estimates the cost of housing someone in a New Jersey halfway house is around $25,000 a year, less than half the cost of keeping a person in prison.

Sen. Troy Singleton (D-Burlington) asked Hicks why the state wouldn’t use some of the federal COVID relief funds received to prevent a “significant, significant cut to … a program that I know you believe in, one you praise.” He said that inmates who are released still need services to help them successfully reintegrate into society and not re-offend.

“By cutting this, aren’t we ultimately cutting our nose off to spite our face?” Singleton asked.

Hicks said the state does not want to pay for unused beds. And it’s possible, he said, with a number of legislative proposals seeking to reduce the prison population, that there will not be enough individuals to fill all those halfway house beds even once DOC deems it safe again to transfer inmates to them, given a person must meet certain criteria and not considered to pose a threat in order to qualify for transfer to such a facility.

DOC savings

“If you’ve already taken 50% of that budget away, it’s hard to find that money later on,” Singleton warned. “A reduction of that magnitude, I think, could put us in a difficult spot as we’re all trying to play catch-up through this year, when none of us know when our finances are going to be up or down.”

Attention to the cuts to the residential community programs took up a significant portion of the hearing, but it was not the only budget topic discussed. Hicks touted saving from the proposed closure of the Central Reception Assignment Facility in Trenton and reductions in medical expenses. But in response to another question, he said there is no need for additional money in the DOC budget to handle a new wave of COVID-19 cases should that occur, saying instead that the department now has enough protective equipment and testing to manage that.

Democratic lawmakers have been pushing to decrease the size of the population under DOC custody. They recently sent Gov. Phil Murphy several bills meant to reduce the prison population, which was about 18,500 at the start of the year but has dropped by 2,200 during the pandemic, according to Hicks. The one that would have the greatest impact, which is still awaiting final approval, is S-2519/A-4235, which would provide credits during a public health emergency to most inmates and parolees nearing the end of their sentences; it would have the effect of reducing their sentences by eight months. This would result in the early release of about 3,000 inmates due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

That bill passed the Senate with a minimum 21 votes and had appeared on track to clear the Assembly, as well. But during a committee hearing late last month, although several Democrats voted to release the bill, they said they were not committed to sending it to Murphy’s desk over concerns about the logistics. The Assembly is likely to take up the measure next week.

Dissatisfaction with pace of release, furlough

That legislation was prompted in large part by lawmakers’ unhappiness with the slow pace and small numbers of individuals released under the executive order Murphy signed in mid-April. That created a process for furloughing nonviolent offenders due to the spread of COVID-19. In New Jersey, the virus has sickened more than 3,700 inmates and staff and killed 51 prisoners — the highest rate per 100,000 population in the nation.

Of more than 4,000 cases reviewed, according to DOC, 416 furloughs have been approved and 329 have been placed on temporary home confinement. Several thousand more were released early from parole, although 15% of all those let out have been returned for violating their release terms. Several advocates, including ACLU-NJ, have been pushing for passage of the bill to prevent more inmates from becoming sick with or dying from COVID-19.

Others worry that there will not be enough services available to assist the large number of those who are released directly from prison. The proposed budget includes close to $3 million in additional funding for re-entry programs, most of that to help those with substance abuse issues, but it is unclear whether that will be enough.

Lombardo said the halfway houses “function as a transition system. Because, as you know, the environment of a prison is very different than the environment in the community. And when folks go away, they remember the community when they left it. When they come back, it could be a completely different universe for them. So what the transitional facilities do is help build them skills to deal with the kinds of things … trying to get them back into the employment stream, trying to link them with their families.”

Hicks said DOC provides a “robust” package of re-entry and transitional services to individuals being released and these will funnel inmates into drug treatment or other programs that already exist within communities. He described it as a continuum that begins at intake, continues through services provided during incarceration, into a halfway house and finally parole.

Still, Singleton was skeptical, saying, “There’s a continuum of care for those who have offended and now are trying to get themselves back. We’re taking 50% of the appropriation for one significant part of that continuum.”