By Raymond Lesniak and John Koufos
After the disastrous tenure of Marcus Hicks as Commissioner of Corrections, a bold change in the culture of corrections is necessary to produce the goal of rehabilitation — to give inmates the opportunity to become better persons than they had been and to prepare them for a successful reentry into society. This, in turn, will increase public safety because we all benefit when people leave prison better than they arrived. With a change in leadership, New Jersey can change the culture of corrections to meet this goal.
First and foremost, inmates and prison staff must be safe and secure. Indeed, without safety and security the rehabilitation process simply cannot work. The recent report about the severe problems at Edna Mahan Correctional Facility and the pending change in the New Jersey Department of Corrections leadership provides an opportunity to implement policies that will make New Jersey safer through smart corrections practices.
Fortunately, the Legislature and Gov. Phil Murphy have prioritized smart criminal justice reform focused on public safety. For example, the Earn Your Way Out Act created a national model incentivizing inmate participation in rehabilitation programs. This landmark legislation required the corrections department to create an individualized reentry plan for every person in prison, and, with the New Jersey State Parole Board and community organizations, create a true continuum of care from entry to prison to reentry into society.
This is not the first time the Legislature provided the corrections department with tools to make our communities safer. As far back as 2009, the Fair Release and Reentry Act required the corrections department to provide basic items needed by former inmates upon release from prison but the implementation of both the Earn Your Way Out and Fair Release and Reentry Act has been slow or non-existent.
For example, in 2020 — 11 years after Fair Release Act was signed into law — the corrections department remained ineffective in executing its legal duty to provide identification to individuals who are being released. Without ID, those released from prison cannot participate in most activities needed to lead productive lives. At its most basic level, employers require an ID to hire an applicant, drug treatment requires an ID to provide service, and job training programs will not enroll a person without an ID.
Gov. Phil Murphy and the Legislature have given the corrections department some of the nation’s best legal tools to help people exiting prison enjoy the dignity of work. If properly implemented, New Jersey can expect lower recidivism, increased public safety and a reduction of the prison population.
The new corrections team should take the following steps:
1. Implement Earn Your Way Out as the Legislature intended. The program strengthens the U.S. Department of Justice’s view that “reentry begins on Day One,” which has been amplified by national projects such as Safe Streets & Second Chances and criminal justice leaders like former Koch Industries General Counsel, Mark Holden. However, Earn Your Way Out smartly added incentives for people who participate in various programs and who demonstrate good conduct.
By developing a reentry plan, and ensuring that it is reviewed, refined and executed during incarceration, Earn Your Way Out will have a significant impact on recidivism and work-readiness for formerly incarcerated people. The key to the program is a collaboration with other state agencies and New Jersey’s well-developed network of community-based providers.
2. The Fair Release and Reentry Act should work in concert with Earn Your Way Out Act, particularly with basic items like identification and related documents. Indeed, much larger state prison systems, such as Texas, have connected their prison systems to their motor vehicle offices to produce tens of thousands of IDs. Other parts of the Fair Release Act, such as access to medication, need to be implemented.
3. New Jersey should build on its criminal justice innovation to create work opportunities. Many employers are willing to hire people with criminal records, but our corrections department must do its part to create work-ready candidates. The nation’s largest corporations have formed the Second Chance Business Coalition and the Society for Human Resources has created the “Getting Talent Back to Work” pledge. Yet formerly incarcerated people struggle with employment, in part, because their time in prison does little to prepare them for release.
By properly aligning existing statutes and administrative innovation, New Jersey can move past this current dark period in corrections while making its communities safer. The Legislature and the governor have paved the road, and if New Jersey’s next Commission of Corrections changes the culture of corrections to benefit society as a whole, in addition to inmates, the entire state will benefit.
Former Senator Raymond Lesniak served 40 years in the state legislature and sponsored several criminal justice reform measures. He is also the founder and president of the Lesniak Institute for American Leadership.
John Koufos is the executive director of Safe Streets & Second Chances and national director of reentry at Right On Crime in Washington, DC.
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