New law aims for dramatic shift in how NJ inmates will get ready for life outside prison

Corrections officials have had more than a year to prepare. Are they set?

A new law that takes effect Monday promises a paradigm shift in moving people out of New Jersey prisons and back into society more smoothly, but its success will depend on its implementation and the availability of community services for ex-offenders.

The Earn Your Way Out law requires the state Department of Corrections to develop reentry plans for inmates to ease their transition out of prison. Each plan is to serve as a road map for the services an individual needs and is to be drafted on entry into the system to help guide an inmate into programs available during their confinement, as well as when they are released.

From the day they enter prison, inmates now are supposed to be directed into counseling services, education courses and other programs to help improve their lives once they leave. Nonviolent offenders who follow the rules and meet their goals are to be rewarded with a guaranteed release and it would be possible for them to reduce their time on parole.

“Reentry for somebody, regardless of his sentence, really, regardless of the length of that sentence, what they should do is they should start with a rehabilitative process within the system, offering treatment services, education, employment opportunities, whatever it might be,” said Dan Lombardo, president and CEO of Volunteers of America (VOA) Delaware Valley, which operates halfway houses, community programs for parolees and voluntary reentry programs. “The rehabilitative process has to be started within the minute the person hits the Department of Corrections.”

Requirements for corrections officials

While advocates say this law would mean a dramatic shift from the current system, some are unsure whether corrections officials are up to the task.

“I don’t think that they’re ready for this piece of legislation, if you want to know my feeling at this point,” Lombardo said. “Do they even have the basic building blocks to comply with the requirements? And the requirements are clear.”

Lombardo said one section of the law requires DOC staff to consult with organizations like VOA that provide reentry services but that no one has contacted the organization.

DOC officials did not respond to requests for information about how they are planning to implement the new law.

The legislation had been pending for several years and was vetoed by former Gov. Chris Christie before Gov. Phil Murphy signed it into law in January 2020. Officials have had more than a year to prepare for the changes, and the current state budget includes $5.9 million for implementing the program.

Reducing prison overpopulation, reoffenders

This law, one of the latest in a flurry of criminal justice and prison reforms in the state, is designed both to reduce the prison population and recidivism by focusing on release from the moment a person enters the system. Last year, the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services estimated that the law could lead to as many as 1,900 additional people paroled. However, that number is likely to be much smaller because the DOC released more than 2,000 inmates last November; a month earlier, Murphy signed a law allowing nonviolent offenders nearing the end of their sentences out early because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the past, the plan for an inmate’s life after prison depended on an individual’s own motivation to get involved in certain programs and services, Lombardo said. The law requires DOC to create a new division to conduct an analysis of each person’s “criminogenic needs” — what traits or problems led them to commit a crime and might lead them to reoffend — and get them into programs to deal with these concerns.

This is important, Lombardo continued, to help individuals be “focused on what they want to do with their lives, how they want to turn the corner in their lives, how they want to get more involved with their families, how they want to give back to the community, to pay their social debt.”

“The concept behind this is you start thinking about release from day one and everything you do from that point on is targeted toward deploying your reentering the community,” said Kevin McHugh, executive director of the Reentry Coalition of New Jersey. “I think actually that’s a good thing.”

The law also establishes a presumption of parole for nonviolent offenders who haven’t committed any serious infractions while incarcerated for at least two years and complete the rehabilitation programs. No hearing would be necessary and anyone denied administrative parole would have to be given the reasons and would have the ability to appeal that decision.

No immediate impact expected 

Samuel Plumeri, chairman of the State Parole Board, said that because so many nonviolent offenders were released late last year due to the COVID-19 credits law, he does not expect to see “a significant impact on what we do,” at least not right away. Still, he said the board is in the process of bringing on more parole officers — two classes of a combined 75 officers are scheduled for training, although at least some of those are to fill the positions of officers who have left or retired.

“Once we get a better handle on what that means in terms of the impact — we won’t know the total impact of Earn Your Way Out for a number of months yet — we’ll be able to see how that goes and appropriately start to figure out how many officers we need,” Plumeri said. “In addition to that is everything else that goes along with it. It just isn’t an officer, you know. It’s the vehicles and equipment. It’s all of those.”

There could be other changes in staffing, though, because there will be less  need to compile detailed reports on individuals coming up for parole consideration. Board staff currently prepares a report on every individual eligible for parole for board members to consult when determining whether to grant parole.

“A lot of those processes will be eliminated because if the inmate meets certain criteria he’ll be fast-tracked and won’t have to go through those more traditional steps,” McHugh said.

Parolee compliance credits

Finally, parolees will be able to earn compliance credits for successfully meeting all the conditions of parole and not committing any serious infractions. This could reduce their time on parole by as many as five days for each month they remain in compliance.

McHugh said he thinks it is appropriate to essentially reward those who show the commitment to meeting the requirements of their parole — be it drug rehab, counseling or a job — by ending their parole early.

But successful reentry depends on “a lot of support,” McHugh said, and questioned whether there will be ample services available for all those released.

“The concern is, when you start increasing the numbers to the communities that these people come from, social services, what have you, how many resources that they have for people when there are larger numbers of people coming back, larger than normal,” McHugh said. “More attention has to be paid to the services that are in the community, particularly in those places where these people tend to come back to … the cities where a lot of the people come into the prison system from. They tend to go back to the same locations and they tend to be poor areas with less resources available already for people who are not offenders and are already struggling.”