Report: Improve reentry assistance

New Jersey now spends more than $1 billion annually on a network of corrections programs, but at least half of those who have been behind bars are likely to be rearrested within three years, a cycle that costs the state hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

That's according to a new report from the New Jersey Reentry Corp., which argues that these public resources could be better spent on efforts to improve basic education, expand vocational training, and help former inmates access effective health care - including treatment for mental illness and substance-use disorders, which affect as many as three out of four prisoners.

The report, "Reentry: From Prison to the Streets, Making It Work," outlines plans for pilot programs at six sites that would test efforts to connect one-time prisoners with targeted training and job placement, health-care case management, and more. It also points to a need for better coordination between reentry efforts and programs run by state corrections officials, and calls for an interagency panel in the governor's office to oversee the mission long-term.

Former Gov. Jim McGreevey, chairman of the Reentry Corp., a group established two years ago to help build on the state's existing reentry efforts, joined several other former governors who also serve as board members, nonprofit partners, and corporation clients on Wednesday in Newark to release the 34-page report. If fully implemented, the recommendations could save the state nearly $190 million a year, the report estimates.

The NJRC runs six sites that offer aspects of these programs, but McGreevey said the document is a blueprint for taking these efforts to the next level.

While Gov. Christie, a Republican, founded the corporation and has been an avid supporter, Democrat McGreevey said the report - which includes several recommendations for state action and a request for $3.5 million in funding - is directed at the next governor, who will take over in mid-January.

"This is an integrated model," McGreevey said, noting that the NJRC has recognized that certain building blocks must be in place for a former inmate to be successful outside of prison: addiction services; sober housing; training and employment; Medicaid, and a connection to a Federally Qualified Health Center; an ID card from the Motor Vehicle Commission; help with legal services; and mentoring. (The work attracted praise from President Barack Obama when he visited New Jersey in late 2015.)

"The health-care component is the next generation and absolutely essential with the addiction crisis," McGreevey added, noting that the pilot programs would help clients obtain insurance, but also connect with services including medication-assisted treatment, in which prescription drugs are used to help ease heroin cravings.

Former Republican Gov. Thomas H. Kean, a board member, also endorsed the plan in a letter; former Govs. Jon S. Corzine and James J. Florio, both Democrats, and former acting Gov. Donald DiFrancesco, a Republican, also attended the release. "The NJRC report recognizes the formidable gains New Jersey has made to assist the formerly incarcerated," Kean wrote

About 41,000 men and women are now behind bars in New Jersey's state, county, and municipal corrections facilities, according to the report, and it costs nearly $53,700 a year to house each person. The population has the greatest racial disparity in the country, with more than 12 black prisoners for every white inmate.

Once people have been incarcerated, the challenges to reentry and future success become even more extreme. A lack of education and job skills is one problem; nearly 40 percent of those released have not completed high school. Poor health is another concern, since one-third of former inmates have a physical or mental disability and half suffer a chronic health condition, other than addiction.

"Almost all our clients are super-utilizers," McGreevey said, using the term given to patients who have significant health-care needs. (Studies have shown 5 percent of Medicaid patients account for some 50 percent of the program's costs.)

To address these challenges, the report calls for a three-year pilot program that would link vocational and technical schools in six counties (Hudson, Essex, Camden, Gloucester, Middlesex, and Union) with manufacturing and other industries that need to grow their trained workforces. Together they will develop specific training programs with room for nearly three-dozen former inmates at each school. At the end, the onetime felons will have their GED and be trained in a well-paying field.

The program - slated to cost $2.3 million per year - is based on studies that show education and quality job training can be effective in reducing rearrest and future incarceration by as much as 50 percent.