(Video in extended article) New Jersey provides less than half of the services needed for inmates to successfully reintegrate to life outside of prison, according to a Rutgers University report released today. “We just hold people in very expensive rooms,” said Nancy Wolff, the Rutgers researcher who conducted the report. “There are a group of people in need of services that don’t have access.” Wolff quit Gov. Chris Christie’s transition team in December, writing a memo saying “the ability to consider important bold reform options was chilled by an orchestrated and deliberate act of bullying and coalition building.”
State Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union) said he wants Wolff to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee on the prison system and the transition report, which she said was compromised by transition team members’ financial interests. Wolff wrote in her memo that lucrative contracts for halfway houses create an incentive for an “aggressive defense of the status quo.”
Today’s report, in the works for months, targets $61.5 million in contracts for halfway houses, saying the money would be better spent inside the state prison system.
Halfway houses provide rehabilitative services to about 2,600 people at a cost of approximately $23,000 each per year. That’s far less than the $48,000 average spent on inmates at state prisons, but Wolff argues more money could be saved if the same services are offered before inmates finish their mandatory prison terms.
“It does not make economic or rehabilitation sense to hold people for years, providing them minimal to modest access to skill building services, and then purchase community-based services for some of those who meet the criteria,” the report reads.
Advocates of halfway houses, also called community treatment centers, said they provide better services at lower prices.
Wolff’s report surveyed 4,000 inmates nearing their release at 11 of the state’s 13 prison facilities. The state is responsible for 27,600 inmates, and about 14,000 are released every year, according to the Department of Corrections.
Inmates who accessed prison services — which include job training and educational classes — said they were helpful, according to Wolff’s report. But some reported significant health and financial problems, and many have drug-related convictions that will prevent them from accessing state welfare programs upon release.
Some Democratic legislators have asked for more services to inmates in the hope they will be less likely to commit new crimes when they’re released.
A package of bills was scaled down to push it through a cost-conscious Legislature. Although the $6 million price tag is less than 1 percent of Corrections’ more than $1 billion budget, a prison official said at a December hearing the department already is strapped for cash.
Corrections spokeswoman Danielle Hunter declined to comment on Wolff’s report.
About one-fifth of the state’s inmates are enrolled in vocational classes, according to department statistics. Another 2,068 are on waiting lists. Star Ledger.