Legislation to create an independent public advocate position with legal and investigatory powers to protect residents of psychiatric hospitals, homes for veterans and the developmentally disabled, and prisons is being introduced by three key state senators who have emerged as leading critics of embattled Commissioner of Corrections Marcus Hicks.
Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg and State Sens. Linda Greenstein (D-Plainsboro) and Nellie Pou (D-North Haledon) said they are researching options for an independent, bipartisan reporting structure like the state auditor of the State Commission of Investigation.
“One thing we’ve learned from past experience is that the public advocate cannot report to the governor or another Cabinet official,” said Weinberg. “The new agency must be truly independent to be effective – and to survive.”
Weinberg said failures by the Department of Corrections to respond to a scathing U.S. Department of Justice report of abuses at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility and allegations of severe beatings and sexually assaults of women inmates by prison guards – combined with Covid-related deaths at state-run veterans homes – leads the legislature with no choice but to search for a better system of checks and balances.
“Too often, the administrators responsible do everything they can to prevent public disclosure of the crisis or abuse.,” Weinberg said. “We need a truly independent public advocate to protect the most vulnerable, and we need broad-based community advisory boards at each institution to provide oversight and advocate for those who cannot effectively advocate for themselves.”
Greenstein, the chair of the Senate Law and Public Safety Committee, says that she could not locate any records showing meetings by the board ta the Edna Mahan facility.
“We need boards that include advocates, experts, family members, former inmates or residents, union or staff representatives, and community leaders who know what is happening in these institutions and would hold regularly scheduled public meetings with administrators to discuss issues and complaints,” Greenstein stated. “
Greenstein said that an independent board at the Paramus Veterans homes would have better informed the public about the effect of the coronavirus pandemic on the facility.
According to Pou, the state would not have been able to delay agreement of a consent order with the Justice Department for ten months had an independent advocate been in place.