The report noted that “while the majority of people completing the survey reported feeling hopeful about their reentry prospects, there are reasons for concern ....” Among those concerns were chronic health and mental health problems that require post-release follow-up treatment; difficulty in obtaining food stamps, public housing and other assistance for released prisoners with drug-related convictions; the lack of job placement resources; the absence of strong family ties in the community to assist with reentry; the burden of fees and fines owed; and a general lack of familiarity with money management, preventive health care and other societal skills among prisoners pending release.
It is generally accepted that the “revolving door” problem of recidivism exists partly due to a prisoner’s lack of skills to cope with a society that has moved on while he or she has been incarcerated. In the past, before the economic problems faced by New Jersey and other states took center stage, elected officials addressed the recidivism problem by telling the public that the best solution was to lock up more criminals. Now, due to budget shortfalls, many states are seeking to trim their corrections budgets.
In 2009, responding to the need to break the cycle of recidivism, Congress passed the “Second Chance Act” – which, among other provisions, provided funding for reentry employment initiatives, mental health services, and substance abuse prevention and treatment programs. Unfortunately, the Second Chance Act did not receive sufficient funding to make a real difference. [See: PLN, Aug. 2010, p.18; Feb. 2009, p.8].
Rutgers University’s Center for Behavioral Health Services and Criminal Justice Research suggested that funds currently spent on costly half-way house confinement be diverted instead to pre-release programs in New Jersey prisons to give soon-to-be-released prisoners the resources and skills they need to successfully reintegrate into society. A survey of 4,000 prisoners showed that almost 70% were aware of the state’s STARS (Successful Transition and Reentry Series) program, and that over 80% rated the program’s materials as good, very good or excellent. An expansion of the STARS program would likely be well-received by prisoners in need of reentry resources.
Among the recommendations made to the New Jersey Department of Corrections in the Rutgers report were a reentry preparedness checklist updated for prisoners within six, twelve, eighteen and twenty-four months of their release; increasing the DOC’s skill-building capacity and tailoring such programs to prisoners’ identified reentry needs; and enacting reentry preparedness standards to determine whether prisoners are eligible for parole consideration upon completion of their mandatory minimum sentence.
The report also called for a community “vouchering program” that would let released prisoners “purchase” residential, vocational and treatment services in the communities to which they are returning, since such programs tend to be concentrated in urban areas. “A vouchering system is consistent with community reinvestment strategies and goals to distribute service capacity more evenly across the state,” said Professor Nancy Wolff, who co-authored the Rutgers report.
The report concluded that both prisoners and the State of New Jersey would benefit from a revised reentry program that not only better prepares prisoners for release, but also maximizes the impact of state expenditures in that area.
Sources: www.mycentraljersey.com; “Reentry Readiness of Men and Women Leaving New Jersey Prisons,” Rutgers University Center for Behavioral Health Services and Criminal Justice Research (January 2010)
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