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Leaders convene for criminal justice reform

Re-entry conference talks solutions

“Full disclosure, I’m a former crack addict, heroin addict. I’m not ashamed of where I come from,” said Tracey Syphax, President and CEO of the real estate firm, Phax Group LLC at the Annual Prisoner Re-entry Conference hosted by the NJ Re-entry Corporation at Saint Peter’s University on Thursday April 13. “But I’ve never had a violent crime. My only convictions were selling drugs to support my habit. Not being able to have those convictions expunged is one of the things that not only impact me but so many others in New Jersey.”
Syphax was speaking on expungement reform with a guest panel that included NJ State Senator Sandra Cunningham and NJ Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto. Sphax, who has spent the last 21 years as a business owner and community activist, has seen firsthand how needlessly onerous and stigmatizing re-entry policy is.His personal story puts one criminal justice myth to rest—that upon release, a prisoner’s debt to society is paid. “My last conviction was in 1989,” he said.“And I still have to answer for that.”
Prisoner re-entry reform attempts to recognize deficiencies and inefficiencies in the current criminal justice system that undermine both prevention of crime and enforcement of the law. Reformers at the conference offered some prescriptions for the myriad problems in the re-entry system. They include expungement (the legal process of removing felonies from criminal records); bail reform (policy that holds accused criminals in jail based on flight risk rather than ability to pay); ban-the-box laws (regulations on the use of criminal history for employment purposes); issuance of identification (so that formerly incarcerated people can get services they need); housing; and addiction.

Progress in a never-ending battle

The idea behind most criminal justice reform is simple: that punishment rarely fits the crime, and better policies should be in place to help people recover and re-enter society, not just punish them. Reformers are trying to bust countless myths in American society about poverty, incarceration, work, and addiction.
“Unfortunately, we let [formerly incarcerated people] come back home to our communities and treat them with disdain,” said 31st District State Senator Sandra Cunningham.“We treat them like they don’t have feelings, like they don’t mean anything, like they’re animals. If we don’t give people an opportunity, a pathway to success, they will not find it.”
Cunningham spoke about NJ’s ban-the-box legislation, called “The Opportunity to Compete Act,” which she sponsored and NJ Gov. Christopher Christie signed in 2014. The law is meant to open opportunities for people re-entering the workforce by increasing chances of getting a first interview, “so they can tell their own story,” said Cunningham. Critics, however, say the law does not go far enough, as it only applies to the initial stages of employment.
Individuals’ ability to get an expungement also impedes opportunity. “So this is turning into a never-ending battle,” Cunningham said of impending expungement legislation.“Where do we draw the line? Even if you change your life, we’re still holding something over their head, saying we’re not going to let you go. Hopefully with new legislation we will do a better job of opening the door to gentlemen like [Syphax].”

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“We treat them like they don’t have feelings, like they don’t mean anything, like they’re animals. If we don’t give people an opportunity, a pathway to success, they will not find it.” – NJ State Senator Sandra Cunningham
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He should know

John Koufos, executive director at the NJ Reentry Corporation, former attorney, convicted felon, and recovering addict, spoke at length about the need to reform NJ’s “antiquated” expungement laws. In the current system, recidivism rates are exacerbated by hundreds of municipal courts requiring appearances for minor offenses. Formerly incarcerated people can easily end up back in jail for not being able to pay the fines accumulated from missed court dates.
“I was blessed to be able to get sober on bail,” Koufos said. “How can we expect someone who is in the throes of an addiction to come and deal with 20 municipal courts? They’re just not going to do that.”
One of the state’s more progressive laws addresses this issue by allowing judges the option to forgive those fines or credit those fines $50 for each day spent incarcerated. Koufos said his network of organized pro-bono attorneys in every county in the state have had 90 percent of their requests met, totaling over $100,000 in forgiven fines.
Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto called on legislators to be “compassionate and thoughtful” in legislating criminal justice reform, and to “lead by example,” and called on citizens to engage more with their legislators. “This is an educative process,” said Prieto, who admitted to only learning of the issue in-depth thanks to impassioned constituents and colleagues, specifically former Governor and Chairman of the NJ Re-Entry Network, Jim McGreevey.
“We need to hear from you,” he told the crowd. “You need to talk to your legislator, your representatives. You make a difference.”
“Coming here as a ten-year-old, with a single mother, I literally grew up in the streets,” Prieto said.“So I actually saw a lot of things, that if God turned one way or another…I could have a lot of problems.”

Employment as an obstacle

Employers also play a large role in re-entry programs. Fatburger CEO Andrew Wiederhorn said employers, especially in the hospitality industry, should be more proactive in employing formerly incarcerated people and play a larger role in policy. “Release dates are timed, everyone knows what those dates are,” Wiederhorn said. “There’s plenty of opportunity. It just needs to be integrated. Waiting until someone is in a halfway house, and you have to get a job and you have so much time to get out, it’s a recipe for disaster.”

For hope’s sake

Gov. Christie, former boxer Mike Tyson, and activist Reverend Al Sharpton also spoke at a panel discussion. Christie, a Republican, has spoken compassionately about addiction and re-entry, a political message that, until very recently, was primarily a Democratic issue. In New Jersey, it’s fast becoming a nonpartisan issue. Sharpton said, “I think this is something that conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats, we all can agree on. Because we can’t keep paying to lock people up. We can’t keep on draining the economy the way we are. Conservatives agree with us. Liberals agree that we need more humanity.”
Christie showed an ability to make a traditionally liberal cause bipartisan by speaking about addiction frankly and by applying conservative values to the cause. “There’s nothing worse than a life devoid of hope,” he said.“Nothing. And it’s certainly in my view not what God intended when He granted that life.”
Christie admitted that criminal justice policy in the last 30 years has failed. “So now we have a problem that’s even larger because of that,” said Christie.“We don’t only have a larger addiction problem because of the drugs that are available both legally and illegally that are extraordinarily addictive and destructive, we also have the problem that we’re talking about today.”

Rehab, not stigma

“Incarceration is, in part, about protecting the public from someone who is engaged in illegal antisocial behavior,” Christie said.“If that is all incarceration is about, then we’re missing it. It’s also supposed to be about rehabilitation.”
Christie, to his credit, signed ban-the-box legislation, and saw a reduction in the state’s prison population at a higher rate than nearly any other state from 2011 to 2014, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School, and that number continues to drop.
But if Christie can be credited for progress in criminal justice reform, then he, too, can be faulted, at least partly, for its impediments. For instance, NJ’s prison population has the highest ratio of black to white prisoners, at 12 to 1, according to the Washington D.C.-based Sentencing Project.However, recent bail reform is expected to reduce the ratio. NJ also tops the list in school segregation, according to a 2014 UCLA Civil Rights Report.
The United States has the largest overall prison population in the world, by far(2,145,100 total, and 666 per 100,000 people).

Rory Pasquariello may be reached at roryp@hudsonreporter.com.

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