N.J. proposal would streamline parole, require re-entry plans for inmates

New Jersey Sen. Raymond J. Lesniak

New Jersey Sen. Raymond J. Lesniak

Certain low-level inmates in New Jersey would be guaranteed parole at their earliest eligible date if they met specific requirements while in prison, should a proposal in the state Legislature become law.

Corrections officials would also help inmates develop a “re-entry plan” while still incarcerated, a sort of roadmap for life on the outside after they are released.

“It will change the entire culture of corrections in our society,” said Sen. Raymond Lesniak, D-Hudson, who sponsored the bill, “so that a prisoner comes out of prison as a better person than when they went in.”

Many offenders sentenced to prison can be released early for good behavior under the supervision of a parole officer. But in New Jersey, it is common for inmates to “max out” their sentences and be released without supervision, as opposed to getting out of jail early on parole.

According to an analysis by the Pew Charitable Trusts in 2014, the state had the ninth-highest “max-out” rate in the nation, with 41 percent of inmates serving their maximum possible prison sentences.

That was nearly double the national average of 21 percent of inmates who served their maximum sentences.

Under the bill, inmates would be released on parole as soon as they became eligible if they met certain conditions:

They had not been convicted of a violent crime
They had not committed any serious disciplinary infractions in the previous five years
They had completed rehabilitation programs
Crime victims had been notified.

Release on so-called “administrative parole” would not require a hearing before the state parole board.

Research has supported the idea that inmates released on parole are less likely to commit subsequent crimes than convicts who serve their maximum prison sentences and get released without state supervision.

New Jersey parolees released in 2008 were 36 percent less likely to return to prison within three years of release than ex-prisoners who served their full sentences, according to Pew.

“Longer sentences actually increase the chance that someone will commit another crime,” said Roseanne Scotti, state director of the New Jersey Drug Policy Alliance. “People who ‘max out’ have much higher rates of recidivism than people who are released and have supervision in the community to provide them support in terms of re-integrating.”

Under the bill, a new Division of Reentry and Rehabilitative Services would be created within the Department of Corrections to inform inmates about available programs and services and help each inmate create an individualized re-entry plan. Parolees would also be awarded credits for good behavior that would reduce the length of their post-incarceration supervision.

Lesniak said the changes would save taxpayer money, allow the state to close several prisons, and enhance public safety. “This is what corrections ought to be about,” he said.

The full Senate has already passed the legislation, which is now awaiting a vote in an Assembly committee.

A spokesman for Republican Gov. Chris Christie said his office would not comment before reviewing the final bill.

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