New Jersey halfway houses where inmates recently escaped have been fined $45,000 for not quickly reporting escapes and in some instances saying some escapees were still present. Assemblyman Daniel Benson (D-14), a member of the Law and Public Safety Committee, told NJ Today Managing Editor Mike Schneider that the fines are a first step in a long list of necessary reforms that are overdue.
Benson said part of the reason for the fines happening now is the press coverage the issue has gotten, the hearings on the subject and public outcry to make sure communities are safe.
The $45,000 fines are the first of their kind and relate to multimillion dollar contracts. While the dollar amount may not be as impactful as it could be, Benson said it’s a start. “I think what we need to see is that we’re holding not only these operators — especially the for-profit operators — accountable with fines, but we need to make sure that for the for-profit they’re meeting the same types of transparency and openness that the non-profits are required to do,” he said. “It means notifications have to go out to local law enforcements and to potential victims when an escape happens.”
Benson said during the hearings, legislators learned a startling statistic — that 43 percent of escapees are not apprehended within two weeks and another 2 percent are not apprehended at all. “This is not something that’s making me or our constituents feel safe. So we want to make sure that when we’re spending the millions of dollars that we are, that we’re not only getting the outcomes that we desire but also making sure the accountability’s there,” he said. “So I think we need to do more than just this one instance of fines.”
Instead of reverting completely back to the prison system, Benson said officials should reform the halfway house system to create a balance between treatment for individuals and safety of the community. He said safety needs to come first and he’s not sure everyone in government is on the same page.
“With the number of escapees that we’re seeing and the lack of oversight and attempts by the administration to block further oversight and audits, I really am concerned that we’re not taking the security side as seriously as we need to be,” he said.
The fines aren’t the end of work on the halfway house system, according to Benson. “We’re spending this summer looking over the testimony that we’ve received, doing some additional fact finding on our own and we’ll put together a package of legislation I think addresses many of these needs,” he said. “But obviously we need the governor to support this.”
Benson is optimistic that change will come about. “Hopefully through further pressure from the public’s desire for security from the measures that we think are just common sense are put forward that we can find that balance that we need to make sure that we’re spending our money wisely while protecting the community and, again, giving those in the halfway houses the treatment they deserve,” he said.