By David Cruz
When a legislative committee holds hearings on privately-run halfway houses, lawmakers may ask about the financial health of the company that has most of the state’s halfway house business.
The halfway house business in New Jersey is booming and Community Education Centers is the leader in that business. They run six of the state’s 24 halfway houses and manage 1,900 of the system’s 3,500-plus beds. That’s $70 million of the $105 million the state spends on privately-run halfway houses. The system has come under scrutiny after The New York Times series reported on the cozy relationship between one of CEC’s vice presidents — Bill Palatucci — and Gov. Chris Christie. Now the Times reports that CEC was near bankruptcy as recently as 2010.
With hearings into the privately-run halfway house system scheduled to begin next week, one lawmaker suggested that — if the state is going to spend $100 million to run the halfway house system — it should probably have more of a say in how they’re run.
“I believe the state would do a better job,” said Assemblyman Nelson Albano (D-1), who sits on the Law and Public Safety Committee that will take up the issue Monday. “We can put the same thing that is happening in the halfway houses in the correctional facilities. We have individuals who work with inmates on a daily basis. The individuals who are working currently at the halfway houses are private citizens. I don’t believe they have the education, the skills or what is necessary to deal with the direction that an inmate has to go through.”
But not everyone will agree that the state should be in the halfway house business. Volunteers of America Delaware Valley runs three halfway houses in Camden. Patricia McKernan is their chief operating officer. She says the Christie administration has been forward thinking in dealing with prison overcrowding by turning to halfway houses. ‘
“It makes no sense to taxpayers to pay for the bill for someone to go back to prison because they couldn’t find a job or because they tested positive on a urine drug screen,” she said. “Those kinds of responses need to be done less expensively, in the community, and more appropriately.”
But Albano says $100 million is a lot of money for a system which he thinks is falling down on the job.
“I personally believe halfway houses are not doing an effective job and this is something that we owe to the taxpayers of the state of New Jersey to have a hearing and do an investigation into halfway houses and to try to achieve an effective way to bring these inmates back out into society to be productive citizens,” he added.
The Christie administration has been mostly mum on the issue. They refer questions to the Corrections Office which says it’s still reviewing the issue. Acting Gov. Kim Guadagno — a former warden in Monmouth County — says the administration is looking forward to the hearings.
“I am sure the hearings will be open and transparent,” she said. “I’d love to see what they hear, what their reports will be and we’ll consider them after they have the full hearing.”
It’s likely that Community Education Centers will be a large focus of the hearings next week, but Democrats say they’re more interested in the what of the problem than they are of the who.