Three Assembly Democratic Bills to Improve Oversight of NJ’s Halfway Houses, Enhance Safety Cleared by Assembly Panel

Bills sponsored by Mainor, Wilson, Benson & Watson Coleman would address problems in state’s halfway houses detailed during legislative hearing
Bills Are Among 6 Sponsored by Assembly Dems – Other 3 Already OK’d by Assembly

(TRENTON) – Three bills legislative sponsored by Assembly Democrats Charles Mainor, Gilbert “Whip” Wilson, Daniel Benson and Bonnie Watson Coleman sponsored to provide stronger oversight and accountability of the state’s halfway houses and improve the safety of inmates and the general public cleared the Assembly Appropriations Committee on Thursday.
The three bills are among six advanced by Assembly Democrats to reform halfway homes.
The other three bills (A-1025, A-2404 and A-2683) have already been approved by the Assembly.
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) 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 and Public Safety 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.
“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 fourth bill (A-1816) 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.”