Halfway houses need repairs

Posted: July 25, 2012

Hearings into the lax oversight of New Jersey's prison halfway houses won't do much good if they don't dig into the fundamental question of whether the state should scrap the privatized program and assume direct control with its own employees.

The separate Assembly and state Senate hearings this week come a month after a New York Times series reported that some halfway houses have become dens of violence, drug abuse, and sexual assault. They have become holding tanks for prisoners awaiting trial and include inmates with such violent histories they should have never been assigned to live in low-security settings. It's no wonder some residents have begged to be returned to a regular prison.

Some residents have simply walked away. Meanwhile, some halfway-house staff have falsified records that indicate whether inmates received social services.

Halfway houses are cheaper to run than regular prisons — by about half. But you get what you pay for. The poorly paid halfway-house employees have little motivation to do their jobs well. There is a cost to their incompetence. One man sent to a halfway house for not paying traffic fines was killed. Another resident escaped and killed a former girlfriend.

Some Democrats seem to be using the hearings as a vehicle to embarrass Gov. Christie, whose close friend, William Palatucci, is a vice president of the state's largest operator of halfway houses, Community Education Centers. His relationship with Palatucci should make Christie twice as vigilant in ensuring that all the halfway houses live up to their promise to effectively help inmates prepare to reenter society.

As for the Democrats, they should be embarrassed that most of CEC's $600,000 in political contributions have gone to members of their party, which certainly would suggest possible conflicts of interest among them.

Neither the governor nor the Legislature did anything with a 2011 state comptroller's report that detailed the magnitude of the poor oversight of halfway houses.

But if the lawmakers can keep politics from intruding, their hearings could produce the best answer to the privatization question, and make the halfway houses what they should be so more inmates can leave them truly prepared to live positive lives.

For that to happen, though, the state Corrections Department needs to get aboard the train to reform. Instead, it has become overly defensive in response to the Times articles, which reported that 5,100 inmates have walked away from poorly secured halfway houses since 2005.

Corrections Commissioner Gary Lanigan says the numbers are misleading because they include inmates who may have come back from work late. But if you correct the list to classify those returning late as tardy and those who have escaped as escaped, the result still says people who are supposed to be monitored are free on the streets without supervision.

Christie points out that these problems precede his administration. Yes, but they're his responsibility now. He and the Legislature should stop using halfway houses to warehouse people who have yet to be tried, and then figure out whether letting private agencies run these facilities is really worth it.

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