Assembly Approves Bill to Create Task Force to Make Safety Recommendations for NJ Halfway Houses

Legislation sponsored by Assembly Democrats Nelson Albano, Joseph Cryan, Daniel Benson, Gilbert "Whip" Wilson, Charles Mainor, Bonnie Watson Coleman and Sean Connors to create a task force charged with reviewing the state's privately run halfway houses and making recommendations to enhance oversight and security was approved Monday by the General Assembly. 

Legislation sponsored by Assembly Democrats Nelson Albano, Joseph Cryan, Daniel Benson, Gilbert "Whip" Wilson, Charles Mainor, Bonnie Watson Coleman and Sean Connors to create a task force charged with reviewing the state's privately run halfway houses and making recommendations to enhance oversight and security was approved Monday by the General Assembly. 

The bill is in response to testimony heard by the Assembly Law and Public Safety Committee during a hearing last summer concerning oversight and accountability of the state's halfway houses. The hearing came on the heels of a damning report on the state's halfway house system by the New York Times, which detailed rampant violence, gang activity, drug use, sexual assault and the escape of inmates, some of whom went on to commit violent crimes while on the run, including murder. 

"These privately run halfway houses were supposed to be a more economical approach to housing inmates, but the lack of oversight at these facilities has put inmates, staff and the general public at risk. Two people were murdered by inmates who escaped. This cannot happen again," said Albano (D-Cape May/Atlantic/Cumberland). "This task force will help tackle these serious transgressions and make these facilities safer for inmates, the people that work there and the public." 

"The ease with which inmates have been able to escape from the state's halfway houses is shocking. There were more than 400 escapes in 2011 alone," said Cryan (D-Union). "Whether on the lam for weeks, days or just hours, this is a huge risk to the public. Some of these escapes have ended in tragedy. Saving money is a laudable goal, but not when it compromises public safety." 

"The state's halfway house system has gone unchecked for too long and innocent people have paid the price. Currently, some of our state's halfway homes seem more concerned with turning a profit than rehabilitating inmates," said Benson (D-Mercer/Middlesex). "The main goal of these programs is to help inmates adjust to the norms of society before returning to our communities, which is why we must rectify these ongoing problems to keep our communities safe." 

"You know the situation is dire when inmates housed in the state's halfway houses ask to be sent back to prison," said Wilson (D-Camden/Gloucester). "These facilities are riddled with problems that have endangered the public, inmates and halfway house workers. The state is paying the companies that run these facilities millions of dollars. They can and must do better." 

The bill (A-3503) establishes 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 is tasked with considering a series of issues, including: 
the Department of Corrections oversight of the RCRPs, such as the method for establishing per diem rates; announced and unannounced site visits; collecting damages for nonperformance of contract provisions; and discipline of inmates; 
appropriateness of the DOC contracting with a non-profit entity to provide services for inmates in RCRPs, but allowing for-profit entities to actually provide those services; 
requiring fiscal accountability and transparency of for-profit providers of services to inmates in RCRPs; 
limiting market share of a for-profit provider of services to inmates in RCRPS; 
size of RCRPs and whether the number of beds in an RCRPs should be capped; 
ascertaining the specific evaluations and services provided at assessment and treatment centers and appropriate length of stay; 
security in the RCRPs, particularly in regard to the availability of alcohol and drugs, number of inmates who escape or abscond, and safety of the employees who work in these facilities; 
availability and effectiveness of services provided to inmates to prepare them to reenter the community; 
qualifications, education, and training of RCRP employees; and 
coordination of services between the DOC, State Parole Board, and the RCRPs. 
"It is mind-boggling that facilities tasked with protecting the public against criminals would make it so easy for these very same individuals to get out and commit more crimes," said Mainor (D-Hudson). "Thousands have escaped from the state's privately run halfway houses since 2005. We owe it to our residents to spend state funds wisely, but certainly not by jeopardizing their safety." 

"These halfway houses are supposed to rehabilitate inmates, but based on the findings by the New York Times, all they seem to have done is make a bad situation worse, all while collecting millions from the state," said Watson Coleman (D-Mercer/Hunterdon). "A better system of checks and balances must be implemented to ensure the companies that run these facilities are earning their keep." 

"The number of violent offenders housed in halfway houses is growing. Putting violent individuals in facilities that are understaffed and lack proper security measures is asking for trouble and that is exactly what we got," said Connors (D-Hudson). "The creation of this task force is a needed first step to reforming a system that has been inadequate and has so far failed to meet its purpose." 

The 17-member task force would be comprised of two members of the Senate from different political parties as appointed by the Senate President; two members of the General Assembly of different political parties as appointed by the Speaker of the General Assembly; the Commissioner of Corrections, the Commissioner of Labor and Workforce Development, the Commissioner of Human Services, the Chairman of the State Parole Board, the State Treasurer, or their designees; the executive director of the Juvenile Justice Commission; a representative from the NJSPBA; and six public members, three of whom are appointed by the Senate President and three of whom shall be appointed by the Assembly Speaker. The public members may have special expertise, training or experience in prison security, substance abuse counseling, prisoner advocacy, or faith-based programming. 

The task force is required to issue an interim report of its findings, along with any recommendations, to the governor and each member of the Legislature no later than twelve months after the date of its initial meeting. A final report is due one year after the interim report. 

The bill was approved 52-23-1 and now heads to the Senate for further consideration.