“On every other Tuesday, at 5 p.m. about two dozen people go to the Martin Luther King Jr. Courtroom in Newark,” U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman told the crowd of several hundred people gathered at St. Peter’s University on April 17 for the Prisoner Reentry Conference.
“At first it looks a lot like other proceedings in that court house,” he said. “A judge is there, and in the well where defendants usually sit with their lawyers, there are some federal prosecutors, four or five people from the U.S. Attorney’s Office and a handful of people from the United State Probation Office. Behind them, sitting on benches usually occupied by spectators, are about 15 other people. But this proceeding is different. Everyone on those benches has very recently left federal prison, some with a stop in a halfway house, others directly from jail. One by one, each of them is called to the front of the court room, sits down at one of the tables to talk to the judge.”
He said when you listen and watch the interaction you begin to realize that there is something extraordinary and really inspiring going on in that court room. The people in the room are offering to help them find jobs, tutor them in math, and do other things to help them to make the transition back into society, Fishman said.
“The last time those defendants were in that court house,” he said, “members from my office were asking a different judge to send them to prison for a substantial amount of time and the judge was telling them how the crimes they had committed required that they be incarcerated.”
After they come out, many of these same people offer to help them get reconnected with society.
According to Jersey City’s director of Workforce Development, former Gov. Jim McGreevey, who helped organize the conference, Fishman is responsible for establishing the first federal reentry program in the state. Fishman was one of the key speakers at a conference focused upon prisoner reentry, the process of an ex-offender’s reintegration into civil society.
An overwhelming percentage of ex-offenders have substance abuse issues, so treatment is essential to maintain their sobriety, McGreevey said. Others at the conference, including Gov. Christopher Christie, said housing is a critical challenge, and so is the ability to find employment.
Treatment, housing, training and employment are key to keeping ex-offenders from going back to jail, McGreevey said.
“While I think the war on drugs was started with the best of intentions, I think we have 30-plus years of proof to show us that it’s not been effective.” – Christopher Christie
The conference brought together leaders in the city, state and county, as well as recovering ex-offenders who told their stories. Speakers include Fishman, Christie, Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop, former NBA player Jayson Williams, United States Magistrate Judge Madeline Arleo, Hudson County Correctional Facility Director Oscar Aviles, and Professor and Provost from Rutgers University Todd Clear.
“We have a crisis in this country,” Fishman said. “Our federal prisons currently house one and a half million people. Hundreds of thousands more are in local jails. Overall, we estimate that one in every 100 adults are behind bars.”
Of the estimated 700,000 people who come out of jail each year, many return to dysfunctional families, lack of housing, and no jobs, Fishman said. Most do not have the education to compete in the job market.
He said part of the solution is raising public awareness and dispelling myths such as the inability of ex-offenders to live in public housing. They can. Companies can get tax credits for hiring ex-offenders. Employers can also get bonded against theft even when hiring ex-offenders.
Conference looks at problems and solutions McGreevey said part of the reason for the conference was to understand the scope of American prisons and to make clear what is needed to break the cycle of recidivism and ultimately restoration.
“Many of us go past those concrete walls [of the prison] and forget the people inside,” McGreevey said.
Fulop said in organizing the conference he wanted people to get an individual perspective on those who are incarcerated
“There is something very wrong in America,” Fulop said. “We are incarcerating more of our fellow citizens as a percentage of our population than any nation in the world. America has 5 percent of the world population, locks up 25 percent of all people in jail in the world. It is a statistic that is sad and clearly points to failure.”
He said 70 percent of those in American jails are sentenced to crimes related to drugs, and yet there is little or no addiction treatment offered.
“America can do much, much better,” Fulop said.
With no educational programs and limited drug treatment, American prisons are a moral cancer on society, he said.
Americans pay $40,000 annually to keep a person in prison, yet do not pay a fraction of this amount to assure transition of a prisoner back into society.
“What other enterprise has a two thirds failure rate and yet gets unprecedented public finance support?” Fulop asked, noting that two thirds of ex-offenders will commit a serious felony within three years of release. “Yet we accept this as the norm.”
Christie started programs to help
McGreevey said no governor has done more for addiction treatment in the state of New Jersey than Gov. Christie.
Christie said he encountered the problem of lack of adequate drug addiction treatment for young people while he was a Morris County freeholder in the 1990s.
“The facts are pretty simple, if you incarcerate someone and do nothing to give them the tools to change and then release them back into society, why would anyone be surprised that they will commit another crime in order to feed their addiction?” Christie asked. “While I think the war on drugs was started with the best of intentions, I think we have 30-plus years of proof to show us that it’s not been effective. No life is disposable.”
Christie said the state is currently in the third year of a program that stipulates that non-violent drug offenders will not be incarcerated until receiving drug rehabilitation.
“We’ve seen that if they get the help they need for what is essentially an illness that they can become good mothers and father, husbands and wives, good sisters and brothers, and sons and daughters. That’s good for our society,” he said. “Let’s say we have a group of people who are just cold hearted and they don’t care about whether life is disposable or not, and let’s say you’re like my father, an accountant, and all you do is count the money. Well, in New Jersey we have a situation where it costs us just short of $40,000 a year to incarcerate someone. Drug treatment for a year is about half that.”
He said later when these people reenter mainstream society, they add to the economy, they work, pay taxes and become productive members of society.
Christie said people continue to treat drug addiction as an offense not an illness, and thus create a stigma that is hard to overcome.
“We have to educate the public that this is an illness,” Christie said. “This is an illness that can happen to anyone, regardless of education, regardless of economic conditions, or family status.”
Another solution is to put together a legislative reform package such as Sen. Sandra Cunningham’s Ban the Box – which allows ex offenders not to reveal that they have served time until they have had a chance to make their case with an employer.
Christie said people who commit violent acts, need to be incarcerated, because they put people at risk
But there are thousands sitting in jails who are not violent and need help. And he said these people should be taken out of jail, treated and given a place in society.
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.