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Bill Package Designed to Improve Education, Job Training in Prisons

(TRENTON) — A sweeping bill package sponsored by six Assembly Democratic legislators to save taxpayer dollars by cutting recidivism by improving inmate education and job training was approved Monday by the Assembly.

The package is sponsored by Assembly Majority Leader Bonnie Watson Coleman and Assembly members Albert Coutinho, Elease Evans, Mila M. Jasey, L. Grace Spencer and Cleopatra G. Tucker. It stems from a series of hearings on Watson Coleman and the sponsors hosted throughout New Jersey to hear from citizens and experts on how to cut into recidivism and save public money.

About 14,000 inmates are annually released from New Jersey correctional facilities, with 65 percent of adults re-arrested within five years. Taxpayers pay about $48,000 per year per inmate, according to the most updated state figures.

The bills have been significantly amended and scaled back from the initial six-bill package to reduce and delay costs.

“The idea that we would willingly continue to fork over $48,000 in taxpayer money per year for every inmate and find that acceptable is hard to comprehend,” said Watson Coleman (D-Mercer). “This waste of money and lives cannot continue, and as we look to save money, stopping it is the moral and smart thing to do.”

Watson Coleman noted the state will save $1.3 million for every 1 percent reduction in recidivism.

“The pervasive cycle of arrest, release and re-arrest is failed system that wastes lives and costs taxpayers dearly,” said Watson Coleman. “Quite simply, it’s a disgraceful and destructive cycle that must come to an end for the good of all New Jersey taxpayers. Some have enjoyed humoring themselves with rants defending the status quo of wasted taxpayer money and wasted lives, but these reforms would be among the smartest moves we could make to save taxpayer dollars.”

“These reforms range from improving education and job training to enhancing family support to eliminating antiquated roadblocks to success for those released from prison,” said Coutinho (D-Essex). “These common sense steps will give people an opportunity to earn their second chance and ensure we spend public money wisely.”

“None of these bills would make it easier to serve sentences,” said Spencer (D-Essex). “What they would do is make serving that time more sensible and help ensure that after their time is served, prisoners re-enter society ready to be productive citizens. That will save lives and taxpayer dollars.”

“The simple fact is that of the thousands people released from New Jersey prisons each year, 65 percent of the adults and 37 percent of the juveniles will return within two years,” said Tucker (D-Essex). “That is unacceptable, and these bills aim to not only to improve lives and neighborhoods, but to save money.”

“Spending money time and time again on prisoners who come and go from our prison systems is, quite simply, a waste,” said Evans (D-Passaic). “We need to do better, not only for the wellbeing of the people whose lives are being lost in our prisons, but for taxpayers who need to know their money is spent smartly.”

“We simply cannot afford to continue the present system of spending money repeatedly on repeat offenders,” said Jasey (D-Essex). “The time has come to change our approach so that we can give people and our society a better chance at a better future.”

The Assembly approved:

  • A bill (A-4202) 45-31 designed to address education and job training, which would:
    • Establish a mandatory workforce skills training program in each of this state’s correctional facilities;
    • Establish a program of mandatory education in this State’s correctional facility under which inmates will be required to attain a high school equivalency certificate or high school diploma;
    • Permit the corrections commissioner to award inmates special credits to provide further remission from their sentence for achievements in education and workforce skills training;
    • Require that a high school equivalency certificate issued to an inmate be issued by the Department of Education;
    • Require the parole board panel, the Department of Corrections or the Juvenile Justice Commission to enter into formal parole contract agreements with individual parolees or inmates that stipulate that if the affected parolee or inmate successfully fulfills the educational, training or other terms of the agreement, the parolee’s term of parole will be reduced or the inmate’s primary parole eligibility date will be moved up;
    • Establish a mandatory six-month period of post-release supervision for all state inmates;
    • Ensure that the Commissioner of Corrections certifies on a monthly basis to the Director of the Division of Budget and Accounting that all available Residential Community Release Program beds in the state are filled to contract capacity with eligible inmates who are within 18 to 24 months of release; and
    • Require the Commissioner of Corrections and the Commissioner of Labor and Workforce Development to ensure that vocational training programs provided to inmates remain current and relevant to employers current expectations of workforce qualification standards.
  • The “Women and Families Strengthening Act” (A-4197), 45-30, which would:
    • End the prohibition against certain formerly incarcerated people receiving cash assistance benefits under the Work First New Jersey and federal food assistance programs, though the prohibition against formerly incarcerated single persons and married couples without dependent children from receiving cash assistance benefits would remain;
    • Establish a commission to develop strategies for strengthening the bond between children and incarcerated parents and reducing antisocial behavior and attachment disorders in children of incarcerated parents;
    • Require the Commissioner of Corrections to designate an assistant commissioner to be responsible for establishing and monitoring polices affecting incarcerated mothers with children;
    • Prohibit the state from housing female inmates in the same correctional facility as male inmates if it results in conditions more oppressive or restrictive than those applicable to male inmates;
    • Require the Commissioner of Corrections, during initial classification, to make every effort to assign an inmate to a state correctional facility close to where that inmate’s family resides;
    • Establish that whenever there is a change in the status of a state inmate that affects the visitation privileges of that inmate, the correctional facility shall immediately post that change of status on its Web site. This information shall remain on the Web site until those visitation rights have been restored;
    • If the change in status in visitation is due to the relocation of the inmate to another facility, the change shall be noted on the Web site of the facility from which the inmate has been transferred and shall remain on the Web site for two weeks;
    • The purpose of these provisions is to provide visitors with advance notice of suspension of an inmate’s visitation privileges so that the visitors do not make an unnecessary trip to the correctional facility;
    • The amended bill removes the prohibition against a state department accepting or receiving revenue in excess of its actual operating costs in establishing and administering inmate telephone services; and
    • Direct the Department of Corrections to provide defendants with information concerning outstanding child support orders and judgments, and how to petition for modifications of those obligations.
  • A bill (A-4201), 45-30 to enable inmates and formerly incarcerated people to obtain information and services that would foster rehabilitation and cut recidivism, which would:
    • Require the Commissioner of Corrections to designate a staff member to compile and disseminate information concerning organizations and programs, whether f
      aith-based or secular, that provide assistance and services to inmates re-entering society;
    • Require that each inmate receive written notice of all outstanding court imposed fines, assessments and restitution charges for which they are responsible;
    • Specify that former inmates are not required to make any payments on any outstanding court imposed fines, assessments or restitution charges during the first 90 days after their release;
    • Provide that state inmates, before their release, are to be provided with various documents, written information, and other items to enhance their ability to successfully reenter society after serving their term of incarceration, including:
      • A copy of their criminal history record and written information on criminal record expungement;
      • Information on the availability of programs that would assist in removing barriers to employment or participation in vocational or educational rehabilitative programs;
      • A detailed written record of an inmate’s participation in educational, training, employment, and medical or other treatment programs while the inmate was incarcerated;
      • A written accounting of the fines, assessments, surcharges, restitution, penalties, child support arrearages and any other obligations due and payable upon release;
      • A non-driver identification card issued by the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission;
      • A copy of the inmate’s birth certificate if the inmate was born in New Jersey;
      • Assistance in securing a Social Security card;
      • General written information concerning child support; and
      • A copy of the inmate’s full medical record.
    • Establish an advisory commission in the Department of Corrections to offer solutions to the problems facing formerly incarcerated adults and juveniles who are re-entering society;
    • Establish a “Blue Ribbon Panel for Review of Long-Term Prisoners’ Parole Eligibility” to be composed of former judges, prosecutors and public defenders who would consider the cases of prisoners who have served more than 20 years of their sentences; and
    • Require the Commissioner of Corrections to work with the Juvenile Justice Commission and the State Parole Board to establish a program to record and analyze recidivism rates for adult and juvenile inmates released from incarceration to measure the effectiveness of the state’s reentry initiatives and programs.
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