(TRENTON) – Legislation sponsored by Assembly Democrats Charles Mainor, Shavonda Sumter, Whip Wilson and Celeste Riley to create a task force charged with reviewing the state’s privately run halfway houses and making recommendations to enhance oversight and security was approved Monday by the General Assembly.
The bill is in response to testimony heard by the Assembly Law and Public Safety Committee concerning oversight and accountability of the state’s halfway houses. The hearing came on the heels of a damning report on the state’s halfway house system by the New York Times, which detailed rampant violence, gang activity, drug use, sexual assault and the escape of inmates, some of whom went on to commit violent crimes while on the run, including murder.
“It is mind-boggling that facilities tasked with protecting the public against criminals would make it so easy for these very same individuals to get out and commit more crimes,” said Mainor (D-Hudson). “Thousands have escaped from the state’s privately run halfway houses since 2005. We owe it to our residents to spend state funds wisely, but certainly not by jeopardizing their safety.”
“The number of violent offenders housed in halfway houses is growing. Putting violent individuals in facilities that are understaffed and lack proper security measures is asking for trouble and that is exactly what we got,” said Sumter (D-Passaic/Bergen). “The creation of this task force is a needed first step to reforming a system that has been inadequate and has so far failed to meet its purpose.”
“You know the situation is dire when inmates housed in the state’s halfway houses ask to be sent back to prison,” said Wilson (D-Camden/Gloucester). “These facilities are riddled with problems that have endangered the public, inmates and halfway house workers. The state is paying the companies that run these facilities millions of dollars. They can and must do better.”
“We need to do more to protect public safety and ensure halfway house residents are getting the services they need to return to society as productive citizens,” said Riley (D-Gloucester/Cumberland/Salem). “This task force will have the expertise needed to ensure we can do the needed reforms the right way.”
The bill (A-2683) establishes the Task Force to Review Residential Community Release Programs to review the state’s halfway houses and make recommendations concerning security and inmate services. The task force is tasked with considering a series of issues, including:
· the Department of Corrections oversight of the RCRPs, such as the method for establishing per diem rates; announced and unannounced site visits; collecting damages for nonperformance of contract provisions; and discipline of inmates;
· appropriateness of the DOC contracting with a non-profit entity to provide services for inmates in RCRPs, but allowing for-profit entities to actually provide those services;
· requiring fiscal accountability and transparency of for-profit providers of services to inmates in RCRPs;
· limiting market share of a for-profit provider of services to inmates in RCRPS;
· size of RCRPs and whether the number of beds in an RCRPs should be capped;
· ascertaining the specific evaluations and services provided at assessment and treatment centers and appropriate length of stay;
· security in the RCRPs, particularly in regard to the availability of alcohol and drugs, number of inmates who escape or abscond, and safety of the employees who work in these facilities;
· availability and effectiveness of services provided to inmates to prepare them to reenter the community;
· qualifications, education, and training of RCRP employees; and
· coordination of services between the DOC, State Parole Board, and the RCRPs.
The 17-member task force would be comprised of two members of the Senate from different political parties as appointed by the Senate President; two members of the General Assembly of different political parties as appointed by the Speaker of the General Assembly; the Commissioner of Corrections, the Commissioner of Labor and Workforce Development, the Commissioner of Human Services, the Chairman of the State Parole Board, the State Treasurer, or their designees; a representative from the NJSPBA; a representative of The National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees and six public members, three of whom are appointed by the Senate President and three of whom shall be appointed by the Assembly Speaker. The public members may have special expertise, training or experience in prison security, substance abuse counseling, prisoner advocacy, or faith-based programming.
The task force is required to issue an interim report of its findings, along with any recommendations, to the governor and each member of the Legislature no later than twelve months after the date of its initial meeting. A final report is due one year after the interim report.
The bill now heads to the Senate for further consideration.