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Cunningham Bill to Enact Corrections and Parole Reforms Clears Senate

Senator Sandra Bolden Cunningham, D-Hudson, listens to testimony during the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee’s hearing on the FY 2011 Budget bills.

TRENTON – A bill sponsored by Senator Sandra B. Cunningham that would enact various corrections and parole reforms, including a community reentry plan for each inmate was approved today by the Senate.

In addition to the individualized reentry programs, the bill, titled “The Earn Your Way Out Act,” would require the Department of Corrections (DOC) to establish administrative parole releases for certain inmates; provide for parole compliance credits; create an inmate disciplinary database; and mandate an impact study of the bill’s reforms by an institution of higher education’s criminal justice program.  In addition, the bill would require the DOC to conduct a study and issue a report concerning the bill’s fiscal impact.

Under the bill, S-761, the Commissioner of Corrections would be required to establish a Division of Reentry and Rehabilitative Services to coordinate reentry preparation and other rehabilitative services within all state correctional facilities, and to act as a liaison to the State Parole Board. Staff within the division would be responsible for developing and implementing an individualized, comprehensive reentry plan designed to prepare each inmate to be a productive, law-abiding citizen upon release.

“New Jersey prisoners serve the full term of their sentence at twice the national average. Those who ‘max out’ their term behind bars have a 40 percent chance of returning to prison for a subsequent crime, compared to a 25 percent chance when they receive parole supervision in the community,” said Senator Cunningham (D-Hudson).  “The $45 thousand per inmate that our corrections system spends each year far exceeds the investment we would need to prepare inmates for a successful, productive life beyond prison.  This law would make sense both in terms of its effect on people’s ability to turn their lives around, and its economic impact on our state.”

Under the current system, individuals often needlessly remain in prison even after they become eligible for parole due to administrative delays. This delay is costly for the state and hinders the successful reintegration into society for these individuals. By facilitating the release of nonviolent offenders who have met certain requirements, this bill would provide an incentive for good behavior and cooperation with treatment recommendations without compromising the ability of the parole board to make decisions that best promote public safety.  It would streamline community reintegration efforts, reduce the state’s burgeoning prison population, and help to decrease state expenditures on incarcerated people who have served their time and have demonstrated rehabilitation.

The bill would provide that an adult inmate would be administratively released on parole at the time of primary or subsequent parole eligibility if:

a)     the inmate has not been convicted of a violent crime under the No Early Release Act, a sex offense under Megan’s Law, or a sexually violent offense;

b)    the inmate has not committed any prohibited acts required to be reported to the county prosecutor that resulted in a conviction during the current term of incarceration, or any serious disciplinary infraction, within the previous two years;

c)     the inmate has completed relevant rehabilitation programs during incarceration, or made application to participate in these programs but was unable to complete such programs or denied access due to circumstances beyond the inmate’s control; and

d)    crime victims have received notification as required by current law.

The bill would require the Commissioner of Corrections to allocate a portion of any cost savings realized from the bill’s enactment to the Office of Victim Services for the operating costs of the Focus on the Victim Program and other services to facilitate successful reentry.

The bill would also require a study to be conducted by a criminal justice program at a four-year public institution of higher education in the State to determine the impact that administrative parole release, as established in the bill, has on the inmate population. The study would specifically focus on those inmates whose primary parole eligibility date was within the five years immediately preceding and the five years immediately following the bill’s date of enactment.

The Lesniak Foundation for Public Advocacy, Anti-Poverty Network of New Jersey, New Jersey Association on Corrections, the Reentry Coalition of New Jersey, Volunteers of America-Delaware Valley, New Jersey Institute of Social Justice, Progressive Democrats of America, the Drug Policy Alliance, Latino Action Network, NOW-NJ, New Jersey Parents Caucus, New Solutions Campaign, Prison Watch Program- American Friends Service Committee, NAACP New Jersey State Conference, Students for Prison Education and Reform, Faith Christian Counseling Center, Integrated Justice Alliance, First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens, Bethel AME Church, Youth Justice Leadership Institute, Lutheran Episcopal Advocacy Ministry of New Jersey, and the ACLU-NJ support the bill.

It was approved with a 26-11 vote.