NJ Seeks to Ease Transition for Former Inmates With Prison Reforms

NorthJersey.com's Ashley Balcerzak Reports

There's an effort underway to reduce recidivism in New Jersey.

On one hand, Assembly leaders are advancing a handful of criminal justice bills that among other things, create a road map of what to do after released, restore voting rights to some and provide student aid options in prison. 

"People make mistakes, serve time and then leave incarceration," said Sen. Sandra Cunningham, D-Hudson, a sponsor of many of the companion bills in the Senate. "That’s the time that you should be able to get into a position to change your life. But let's face it, a lot of the time they get out and can't support themselves and their families and will do the same thing and go back to prison. These bills are designed to give those people a foot up."

On the other hand, a commission jump-started by Gov. Phil Murphy recommended nine changes to sentencing policy Thursday including retroactively eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug and property crimes, reducing time served for second-degree robbery and burglary and reworking youth sentences.  Murphy wants the Legislature to craft the bills and send them to him in the next two months. 

Sen. Sandra Cunningham speaks at a press conference releasing a report with recommendations to reform New Jersey sentencing policy.

Sen. Sandra Cunningham speaks at a press conference releasing a report with recommendations to reform New Jersey sentencing policy. (Photo: Ashley Balcerzak)

Murphy said he would like to pass a package of sentencing bills before the legislative session ends in mid-January, giving leaders two months to write, debate and pass the bills. Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-Middlesex, expressed support for the ideas, but Coughlin said he had to read the report before committing to anything. 

In the Assembly, lawmakers have moved bills to:

The “Earn Your Way Out Act” would provide each inmate with an customized reentry plan. The guide would include information about substance abuse treatment, educational and vocational information, psychological service resources, among others, said the bill's sponsor, Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter, D-Passaic.

"You're taking people from this controlled environment where all the services are controlled and delivered, and putting them in a new community where they have to figure it out on their own," Sumter said. "We want to put connectors in place so they're successful and become law-abiding citizens upon release."

The bill also creates an inmate disciplinary database, and reduces the length of parole in some cases, as well as the number of parole hearings required for parole. Former Gov. Chris Christie vetoed the legislation in 2017, taking issue with the changes to the parole process. 

Legislative analysts did not provide an overall cost of the bill, but noted annual housing and food costs at state prisons come to close to $50,000 an inmate.

The bill, which had previously passed the Senate, cleared an Assembly committee.

Restores voting rights

People convicted of a felony who are on parole or probation would be allowed to vote. New Jersey’s state Constitution from 1844 allowed the Legislature to deny voting rights from people with criminal convictions until they finished their entire sentences, including parole and probation. Murphy said he would support restoring the right to vote for parolees in his 2019 state of the state address. 

More than 94,000 New Jerseyans are disenfranchised because of the 175-year-old law, according to a report by the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice. About 73,000 of that population cannot vote because they are on parole or probation. More than half of those without the right to vote, or 47,400, are black. 

A handful of Republicans did not support the legislation.

“By removing one of the important penalties associated with criminal convictions, Democrats would eliminate a significant deterrent to committing crime that could negatively impact public safety,” said Sen. Jim Holzapfel, R-Ocean, a former Ocean County prosecutor. “People who have shown criminal disregard for our laws should not have a role in electing the people who write them.”

The bill cleared the Assembly committee. 

Many witnesses Thursday said the bill did not go far enough and should restore voting rights to people in prison, legislation that has also been introduced in both the Senate and Assembly.

"We want people to come out of prison better than they were when they went in, and people having the right to vote will help to give them dignity," said Cunningham, a sponsor of the Senate bill. 

Let inmates receive student financial aid

Incarcerated people would be eligible for state-sponsored scholarships and grants, if the person was a New Jersey resident for more than a year before being incarcerated, is a state-sentenced inmate and the Department of Corrections approves their enrollment in an eligible college.

"It’s restorative justice," said Sumter, the bill's sponsor. "Finances become an issue so allowing people to at least apply for financial help can get them back to society with some skills and education." 

The bill would cost the state between $600,000 and $901,000, according to legislative analysts. New Jersey has 476 incarcerated students taking college courses at Raritan Valley Community College or Rutgers University-Newark through NJ STEP, an association that provides inmates with college classes during or after incarceration. Full-time students would be eligible for $2,786 Tuition Aid Grants and part-time students eligible for $1,392 grants a year. Lawmakers voted the bill out of the Assembly appropriations committee. The legislation previously passed the full Senate.

Decreases re-incarceration time

If adults older than 26 are sent back to prison after not following the conditions of parole, the time would be reduced from 12 months to 9 months. This bill would apply to people who didn’t report to their parole officer, or didn’t comply with a “special condition of parole.” The bill advanced out of the Assembly committee. 

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