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Prisoner Re-Entry Bills Approved By Senate

State Senator Sandra B. Cunningham, D-Hudson, speaks with a staffer before the beginning of the Budget Committee meeting on Governor Corzine's toll road plan.

TRENTON � Bills to help rehabilitate people incarcerated in New Jersey�s state prison system and facilitate their re-entry into society were approved today by the state Senate.

One bill (A4202/S11), sponsored by Sen. Sandra Bolden Cunningham (D-Hudson) incorporates several measures to help rehabilitate inmates, with a goal of reducing criminal recidivism by making it easier for an inmate to assimilate when they leave prison and re-enter the community. It was approved 21-16 by the Senate.

�This country incarcerates 1 percent of its population, a higher percentage than any other country in the world,� Sen. Cunningham said. �Unfortunately, there will always be those who choose to break the law. We need to do more than just warehouse them for years before releasing them back into society. We have to figure out ways to make sure that once they do come back, they are able to stay out of prison.�

The bill would direct the Commissioners of Corrections and Labor and Workforce Development to establish a mandatory workforce skills training program in each State correctional facility. The workforce training program would be mandatory for any inmate who had 18 months remaining to be served before a mandatory release date and was not exempted due to a disability. An inmate who satisfactorily participated in the program would be eligible for commutation time for good behavior.

The bill also would require the commissioner to work with the Commissioner of Education to establish a program of mandatory education in each State�s correctional facility. The bill would require an inmate who did not have a high school equivalency certificate or high school diploma to participate in the program, under which the inmate would be required to meet specific educational requirements to achieve a certificate or diploma.

�The bill would require that high school equivalency certificates issued to an inmates be issued by the Department of Education,� Sen. Cunningham said. �Currently, these certificates are issued by, and bear the designation of, the Department of Corrections, which carries a stigma that follows the former prisoner into the workplace.�

The bill also would permit certain ex-offenders to obtain a court order that allowing them to visit prisons if they can show the visits are likely to motivate and assist in the rehabilitation of incarcerated persons. The orders granted under this bill would allow a person to visit any correctional institution in this State.

Another of the bill�s provisions would cap at a maximum of three years the length of time that the parole board could require an inmate denied release to serve before having another hearing.

The Senate also approved by a 28-10 vote a bill (A4201/S502) � the �Fair Release and Reentry Act of 2009,� sponsored by Sen. Cunningham and Senators Teresa Ruiz and Shirley Turner � that would establish measures to help inmates obtain a variety of information and services considered critical to a successful reentry into the community.

The commissioner of corrections would provide to each inmate, prior to their release, a copy of their criminal history record; written information about criminal records expungement, voting rights, employment programs, vocational and educational rehabilitative programs, the State�s certificate of rehabilitation program, and child support; a detailed written record of an inmate�s participation in educational, training, employment, and medical or other treatment programs while incarcerated; a written accounting of the fines, assessments, surcharges, restitution, penalties, child support arrearages, and any other obligations due and payable upon release; copies of some of the inmate�s important government documents; a non-driver identification card to be issued by the Motor Vehicle Commission (MVC); a one-day New Jersey Transit rail and bus pass; a two-week supply of any medication prescribed for the inmate, and a copy of the inmate�s full medical record.

�There are many obstacles people face when transitioning from a correctional facility back to society,� said Sen. Ruiz (D-Essex). �This bill will go a long way toward removing some of those unnecessary challenges to reentry and giving an inmate some of the basic tools needed to get a job, build a support network, and meet any addiction recovery or mental health needs.�

Sen. Turner noted thousands of people who are released from prison every year wind up returning to the friends, places and habits that landed them in prison in the first place.

�Then more crime, and more prison time, follow,� Sen. Turner said. �About two-thirds of adults offenders released from State correctional facilities and one-third of juvenile offenders released from detention end up back in custody within two years. But some are able to turn their lives around, and studies have shown us what these people have done to get their lives back on the right path.�

Addiction, low educational achievement, unstable community and family relationships, and poor job skills are some of the most common traits among criminal populations and contribute to their inability to return to productive lives.

�Inmates who stay out of trouble are often those who have attained education and job skills, maintained or created strong community and family bonds, continued to meet their addiction and mental health needs, and gained immediate access to organizations that help foster these skills and relationships,� Sen. Turner said.

The package of re-entry bills is intended to get more former inmates on the path to a successful transition back to into society, reduce recidivism, protect public safety and promote fiscal responsibility.

The bill now goes to the Governor for his signature.

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