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Sweeney-Cunningham Bill Would Boost Reentry Services

TRENTON – Senate President Steve Sweeney and Senator Sandra Cunningham introduced legislation today to expand the scope of support services for the reentry of former offenders.

The legislation would update the state’s “Fair Release and Reentry Act of 2009,” which has proven successful in aiding the transition of inmates released from state prisons, to include those from county correctional facilities. It would also extend the post-release timeframe for qualifying for reentry services and facilitate access to health care and emergency services.

“If we want to give former offenders a fair opportunity at a second chance we have to help address the obstacles to their successful reentry into society,” said Senator Sweeney (D-Gloucester/Salem/Cumberland). “These services have proven to be successful at state facilities so there are good reasons to expand the scope to include counties. This can make a real difference in the lives of men and women who are returning to their families and communities as productive members of society.”

“This bill will help to address the significant obstacles faced by inmates in obtaining what can be life-sustaining benefits when they are released from incarceration,” said Senator Cunningham (D-Hudson). “One of the biggest barriers facing the reentry community upon release is lack of photo identification, which is needed to apply for general assistance, housing or employment.”

The current law ensures that state inmates are provided within 10 days of their release various documents, information, and other items critical to their reentry efforts. It helps to obtain food stamps, cash assistance and temporary emergency housing under the state’s general assistance program, and Medicaid, including behavioral health services such as addiction treatment and mental health care.

The bill would also require county facilities to issue these same documents, matching the current requirement for state inmates. It would also require that individuals be given a 90-day supply of prescription medication upon release and that social service organizations are notified in advance to help arrange reentry services upon release.

The legislation was praised by a leading reform advocate.

“This legislation is of extreme importance to providing persons released from prison and jail with the tools to survive in the first thirty days after release,” said former Governor Jim McGreevey, Chairman, New Jersey Reentry Corporation. “If you are released from prison without food, shelter, medicine, and a recognized identification, in order to survive there is little recourse but return to crime. I am most grateful to the Senate President and Senator Cunningham for believing in second chances, but more importantly, providing state and federal services so that people have the opportunity to do ‘the next right thing’.”

The measure would amend the law to require the issuance of a benefits card to obtain support from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and the Work First New Jersey program. This Medicaid coverage would apply to state and county inmates. And, inmates deemed “presumptively eligible” for Work First would receive the assistance for at least 45 days following their release.

In addition, the current requirement that an inmate’s identification card be accepted by all state, county, and municipal agencies and nonprofit organizations for inmates to access reentry services during a public health emergency would be extended to six months and to apply to county facilities.

Senator Cunningham emphasized the importance of arranging benefits in advance of inmates’ release. To ensure that there is no delay in acquiring necessary services, corrections officials would be required to complete, on behalf of inmates, applications for enrollment in social service programs.

The measure also eliminates the provision in current law that prohibits those convicted of an offense involving the use, possession, or distribution of a controlled dangerous substance from receiving Work First New Jersey benefits.