Assembly Majority Leader Bonnie Watson Coleman has staged a series of "Second Chance" hearings, designed to look at all facets of incarceration. She plans to introduce a six-bill legislative package to meet those goals.
The lawmaker - whose two sons have served state prison terms for robbery - says the measures would not make life easier for inmates, but rather mandate that they take part in educational and job skills programs that would improve their chances for success once they're freed.
"The pervasive cycle of arrest, release and re-arrest is a failed system that wastes lives and costs taxpayers dearly," Watson Coleman said.
Studies show about 14,000 adult inmates and 1,600 juvenile offenders are released from correctional facilities in New Jersey each year. As many as 65 percent of the adults will be re-arrested within five years, while 37 percent of juveniles will return to correctional facilities within two years.
It costs the state about $35,000 a year to keep an inmate incarcerated, more than twice the average of the nearly $13,000 it cost to educate a child in New Jersey last year.
"Those who violate our laws will still serve their time - that will not change" under her proposals, Watson Coleman said. "But the way they serve that time would change, (and) when their time has been served, they would re-enter society ready to be productive citizens. That would save lives and taxpayer dollars."
Her proposals include:
- Numerous reforms, such as creating a commission to find ways to boost ties between jailed parents and their children, aimed at strengthening women and families.
- Making it easier for released inmates to obtain employment by creating a restricted driver's license and removing restrictions that prevent felons from working for, among other employers, limousine services and places that serve alcohol. Employers also would be barred from discriminating against job applicants on the basis of a criminal record.
- Mandating new correction officer training and issuing a uniform identification card for visiting attorneys.
- Combating recidivism by establishing a faith-based programs coordinator within the state Corrections Department, creating courts specifically designed to handle mental health issues and allowing 90-day grace periods for outstanding fines.
- Reviewing vocational programs to ensure they meet job demand skills and standards, requiring inmates reach 12th-grade literacy and that equivalency-degree classes be available to inmates who request them and allowing inmates to enter into agreements for education and job training to decrease parole terms.
- Giving judges the discretion to reduce fines and penalties and expand access to expungement.