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Assembly Democratic Bill to Improve Oversight of NJ’s Halfway Houses, Enhance Safety Advanced by Assembly Panel

Bills sponsored by Mainor, Wilson, Benson & Watson Coleman would address problems in state’s halfway houses detailed during 2012 legislative hearing

(TRENTON) – A six-bill legislative package sponsored by Assembly Democrats Charles Mainor, Gilbert “Whip” Wilson, Daniel Benson and Bonnie Watson Coleman to provide stronger oversight and accountability of the state’s halfway houses, as well as improve the safety of inmates and the general public was advanced Thursday by the Assembly Law Enforcement Committee.

The bills are in response to testimony heard by the Assembly Law and Public Safety Committee on July 23, 2012 concerning oversight and accountability of the state’s halfway houses. The hearing was held following media reports of widespread problems in the privately run halfway houses, including escapes, gangs, drugs and sexual abuse. The bills would help address some of those issues.

The first bill (A-839), sponsored by Mainor, Wilson, Benson and Watson Coleman, would require the state Department of Corrections (DOC) to conduct quarterly scheduled and unscheduled visits to halfway houses, including assessment and treatment centers, to ensure the facilities are meeting the terms of their contracts with the state and taking corrective action when needed.

“We know that the DOC was conducting fewer site visits to halfway houses than what was required. In some cases, administrators knew of unannounced visits in advance. That just makes no sense,” said Mainor (D-Hudson), who chairs the Assembly Law Enforcement Committee. “These facilities play too an important role in the reintegration process to go unchecked.”

“It is no surprise that so many problems were able to fester considering such lax oversight,” said Wilson (D-Camden/Gloucester). “There needs to be better accountability and this bill provides it.”

“These halfway houses have an important charge and are paid generously for it,” said Benson (D-Mercer/Middlesex). “It is in the best interest of the state to ensure their performance is up to par.”

“Thanks to little to no regulation by the state, these halfway houses have been allowed to operate at their own discretion,” said Watson Coleman (D-Mercer/Hunterdon). “That stops today.”

The second bill (A-840) would prohibit county inmates awaiting trial for first, second or third degree crimes from being transferred to a residential community release program facility, including assessment and treatment centers, halfway houses and substance abuse treatment programs, to avoid mixing inmates charged with serious offenses with inmates preparing to reenter society.

The bill is sponsored by Mainor, Watson Coleman, Wilson and Benson.

“Several New Jersey counties are housing pre-trial county inmates in halfway houses rather than in county jails,” said Mainor. “It is counterproductive and even dangerous to put inmates charged with serious crimes and awaiting trial, with inmates who have served their time and are preparing to reenter society. These inmates should remain in the county jail until they have been sentenced.”

“How does housing inmates awaiting trial for serious crimes at halfway houses help prevent recidivism and relapse? It seems to me that it would do the opposite,” said Watson Coleman. “The state cannot risk having the rehabilitation process disrupted by a more precarious criminal element.”

“Some halfway house inmates who were just months away from release blamed their escape on dangerous conditions inside. Considering what we now know, that’s not so hard to believe,” said Wilson. “There is little room for rehabilitation when you have to worry about watching your back.”

“Housing these inmates in halfway houses threatens public safety and puts other inmates and employees, who may lack the adequate training at risk,” said Benson. “An inmate who has just been charged of a crime and is awaiting trial has no business in a facility with minimal security.”

The third bill (A-1025), sponsored by Benson, would prohibit inmates or parolees who are required to register as sex offenders from being placed in residential community release programs before they have been tiered and the appropriate community notification has been given. The bill would also prohibit placing a county inmate charged with a crime for which a conviction would require registration as a sex offender under Megan’s Law in a residential community release program.

The bill would close a loophole in the current sex offender community notification system that allows DOC inmates and state parolees who are sex offenders to be placed in halfway houses without community notification because they are still considered to be in the state correctional system.

“The ease with which inmates have managed to escape from the state’s halfway houses is chilling. More than 5,000 have escaped since 2005. Some were only caught after committing a crime while on the lam,” said Benson. “We owe it to these communities to give them advance notice when an inmate who is required to register as a sex offender moves into their neighborhood.”

The fourth bill (A-1816), sponsored by Wilson, Mainor, Watson Coleman and Benson, would transfer the authority of awarding halfway house contracts from the Department of Corrections to the Division of Purchase and Property in the State Department of the Treasury. The bill would require specific stipulations be included in these contracts. Under the bill, the division would reserve the right to terminate any contract awarded to a halfway house if any of the contact terms is violated.

“The lack of oversight at the state’s halfway houses has compromised the safety of residents, employees and inmates,” said Wilson. “In addition to shifting the responsibility of awarding these contracts to the Division of Purchase and Property, the bill would require important stipulations like having staff with adequate education, training and experience be included in any contract awarded.”

“The failure to properly supervise these facilities allowed these serious problems to spiral out of control,” said Mainor. “This bill would help prevent this from happening again by making contract awards contingent upon positive annual evaluations by the state Department of Corrections. If the department fails to conduct at least one annual site visit per year, the contract would be terminated.”

“These halfway houses are making many well-connected people very rich,” said Watson Coleman. “There needs to be a better vetting process to ensure that taxpayer money is not wasted, and that these facilities are fulfilling their obligations and are held accountable when they are not.”

“The problem is not just the vetting process, but little follow-up to confirm that once a contract is awarded, services are being met,” said Benson. “Halfway houses are the last stop before inmates are released into the community. The state has to be more diligent about who it chooses to do this work.”

The fifth bill (A-2404), sponsored by Benson, would require halfway house owners and operators to annually submit a financial disclosure form with the Department of Corrections.

Specifically, halfway house owners and operators would have to file an initial disclosure statement with the Commissioner of Corrections within 90 days following the effective date of the bill. Thereafter, annual disclosure statements would have to be filed on or before April 30th of each year.

“Halfway houses are multi-million dollar operations,” said Benson. “These providers are awarded hefty contracts to prepare inmates for reintroduction into society. This bill would help provide greater transparency over their operations to ensure that the state is getting its money’s worth.”

The bill would impose civil and criminal penalties for non-compliance.

The sixth and last bill (A-2683), sponsored by Mainor, would create 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 would have to issue an interim report of its findings, along with any recommendations it may have, to the governor and each member of the Legislature. A final report would be due one year after the interim report.

“Halfway houses are responsible for thousands of inmates who will eventually return to our communities,” said Mainor. “Considering the numerous problems that have surfaced about the state’s halfway house system, it is important that we take a magnifying glass to their operations to ensure that the security and the safety of inmates, employees and the public is not being forfeited to profit.”

All six bills were released unanimously by the committee.