Keep an eye on halfway houses

PEDRO MOLINA
PEDRO MOLINA
Posted: June 26, 2012

New Jersey's prison halfway houses have become havens for drugs, gangs, sex, assaults, and robberies. They are so poorly monitored it is impossible for them to be places where convicts can make orderly transitions to the outside world.

Lax monitoring was pointed out in a report by state Comptroller Matthew Boxer more than a year ago. But the report got little attention from either Republican Gov. Christie, who has deep ties to Community Education Centers, a major halfway-house operator, or from the Democratic-controlled Legislature. In fact, former Senate President Richard Codey once held an insurance contract with CEC, which has showered campaign cash on politicians.

The cost to operate a halfway house is about half what a prison requires, but going cheap has its own costs. According to an analysis by the New York Times, about 5,100 inmates have escaped from New Jersey halfway houses since 2005, compared with three escapes total from its state prisons in 2010.

At the Albert M. "Bo" Robinson Center, near Trenton, 55 of 75 inmates tested positive for drugs. One resident complained that drug counseling sessions had been taken over by the Bloods gang. A female resident said she was repeatedly raped by a janitor.

The Times also reported that the halfway houses are understaffed. Turnover is high among the undertrained, low-wage workers. Security is so ineffective that residents often ask to return to a prison, where they say they actually feel safer. Inmate records were falsified and, somehow, an administrator at one halfway house received advance warning of rare state inspections, making it easy to cover up the chaos.

These problems raise questions about the credibility of Christie's recent promise to channel nonviolent offenders into mandatory drug treatment programs. That is a smart and compassionate proposal, but the plan's effectiveness will depend on who runs the treatment programs and how well the state monitors them.

Halfway houses are a good idea. They can provide therapeutic environments. They can segregate nonviolent criminals from hardened sociopaths, and offer work-release and high-school diploma programs to those wanting to start a new life. They can save taxpayers' money and reduce the prison population. But they have to be monitored — at all times.

The politicians who stand up for the halfway houses, and the organizations that support the politicians — including the Republican Governors Association, which accepted $50,000 from a halfway house — should shun political contributions from these vendors. Their coziness has people wondering about the connection between campaign donations and the lack of oversight.

Now that newspaper articles have focused the public's attention on the poor monitoring of the state's almost two dozen halfway houses, the governor and Legislature have vowed to investigate and reform. But those promises should be met with skepticism, given how easy it was for elected officials to put the comptroller's report in the round file.

Christie points out the state has used halfway houses since the 1990s, perhaps suggesting that their problems aren't new. Maybe, but he's the governor now, and it's his job to make corrections.

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