Editor’s Note: This article was updated with comment from McGreevey at 4:23 p.m.
The Reentry Services Commission released a sweeping 102-page report recommending reforms to improve conditions for former offenders once they leave prison.
The 14-member commission’s report focuses on healthcare, addiction treatment, employment, legal services and housing for former offenders.
“The Reentry Services Commission report offers 100 practical ‘action steps’ to improve the lives of those being released from prison,” former Gov. Jim McGreevey said. “Our program participants are 129 times more likely to die from opioid overdose in the first two weeks after release. These recommendations focus on addiction treatment, healthcare, legal issues and employment training.”
The report recommends the creation of a medically-assisted treatment program for inmates with substance use disorders that would begin while they were still incarcerated.
The commission found that just 800 incarcerated individuals were part of a medically-assisted treatment program, while more than a quarter of the 19,000 incarcerated persons in the state’s prison system have an opioid use disorder and more roughly three quarters have a substance use disorder of some kind.
To combat the disparity, the commission recommended the implementation of universal substance abuse disorders screenings for inmates in all correctional facilities at intake. It also recommended broad expansions in the treatment programs.
The commission was co-chaired by McGreevey, State Sen. Sandra Cunningham, Assemblywoman Eliana Pintor Marin and attorney Larry Lustberg.
“While the state has taken significant strides in creating an environment conducive to the rehabilitation of individuals being released from prison, there continue to be significant barriers to successful reentry in healthcare, addiction, employment, legal services, and housing,” Cunningham said. “Formerly incarcerated individuals have significantly higher rates of physical and mental health issues, making access to screening and healthcare during incarceration and to transitional services upon release essential to successful reintegration. This report provides a blueprint for change that will help them succeed.”
The report also recommended coordinating for longer term treatment outside of the jail system once inmates approached their release.
The commission found the largest share of opioid-related deaths for former offenders occurred less than a month after they left prison.
On education, the body recommended jails coordinate with local business, community colleges and peer mentors to provide better job training for inmates once their sentences expired, among other things.
To combat debt incurred by offenders during their term, the commission recommended that all municipal fines be based on income and that those charged with a crime be provided clear notice of public defender fees and the process for the waiving of the same.
It also recommended limitations on child support obligations for incarcerated individuals.
In 2005, the New Jersey Institute for Social justice found the average incarcerated parent left prison with a child support debt of $20,000, a debt that could be crippling given the limited job prospects for former offenders.
“You know, there’s no one in this room that doesn’t know someone that has a mental illness, that has a drug problem, that has an alcohol problem, and I think it’s finally ok for us to talk about this issues,” Pintor Marin said. “Now, the important thing is how do we find the resources … to make sure that our programs are running and have the adequate funding.”
Because of the prevalence of hepatitis B and C, the commission’s report recommended implementing comprehensive testing for all inmates and treatment programs for those who tested positive.
Inmates should be pre-enrolled in Medicaid at least 60 days before their release and providing former inmates with prescribed medicines for up to 90 days following the same.
The report recommended doubling funding for the state’s Rental Assistance Program, from $40 million to $80 million and designing a housing voucher program dedicated to serving the re-entry population along with continued investments in New Jersey’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund.
The commission also urged the passage of five pieces of legislation on the state level.
It said the state must pass the Earn Your Way Out Act of 2019, which would create the Division of Reentry and Rehabilitation Services, which would develop an inmate reentry plan.
It also urged the passage of a bill that would broaden the list of non-violent offenses eligible for expungement. Such a bill has been the subject of a relatively-slight political feud between Gov. Phil Murphy and legislative leaders.
The commission said the state should also pass bills eliminating the “good moral character” requirement from professional and occupational boards considering licensing for former inmates, ensuring women inmates are provided with feminine hygiene products and creating processes to identify Medicaid-eligible incarcerated individuals who are awaiting release, being released or undergoing medical treatment.