A Need for Post-Release Services in the New Jersey Department of Corrections
By: Alexa Moubarak
The United States accounts for just five percent of the world’s population, but twenty-five percent of the world’s prison population (Eisen & Chettiar, 2015). Roughly 2.2 million men, women, and youth are currently behind bars in local jails and state or federal prisons (Executive Office of the President of the United States, 2016). Our incarceration rate is at a high of 716 per 100,000 people, a rate higher than Canada, France, China, Austria, Australia and Spain combined (Walmsley, 2013). Economically this rate is unsustainable, as $80 billion a year is spent on corrections and in 11 states more money is spent on incarcerating citizens than on higher education (Executive Office of the President of the United States, 2016).
Over 600,000 inmates are released annually in the United States, with approximately 25,000 inmates released daily, many of whom are not provided post-release services (Executive Office of the President of the United States, 2016). A 2005 study conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics revealed that 68% of 400,000 released inmates were re-arrested by the three-year mark (Markman, Durose, Rantala, & Tiedt, 2016). Further studies have shown that within five years of release, 77% of inmates are re-arrested and 55% of those re-arrested are then convicted and re-incarcerated (Executive Office of the President of the United States, 2016).
Post-release inmates face an abundance of barriers to a successful transition including, but not limited to, obtaining permanent housing, finding stable employment, connecting with mental health/substance abuse providers, applying for health insurance, and securing the proper transportation to get all of their needs met. Policies and practices on both the federal and state level, along with societal discrimination, further impede a successful transition. Convicted felons are likely to be denied public housing due to a variety of offenses, including crimes like sexual abuse, distribution of drugs, and arson. Research has estimated that incarceration contributes nearly 20 percent to the United States poverty rate (Eisen & Chettiar, 2015).
Additionally, inmates have difficulty securing stable employment after being released from prison. For example, the 2009 unemployment rate in the general population was roughly ten percent but a high of 66 percent for ex-offenders (Nally, Lockwood, Taiping, & Knutson, 2014). Virtually one-third of the adult population in this country, totaling 70 million adults, has a criminal charge on their background, and criminal background checks are conducted by nearly 70 percent of employers across the United States (Executive Office of the President of the United States, 2016).
Furthermore, in the United States, approximately 65%, or 1.5 million, of inmates meet criteria to be diagnosed with at least one substance use disorder. An additional 20% of inmates, not diagnosed with a substance use disorder, were under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs when they committed their crime (Columbia University, 2010). Within the New Jersey Department of Corrections, the prevalence of inmates diagnosed with a substance use disorder hovers around 50%. A 2016 Harvard study reported that an inmate diagnosed with both a mental health and substance use disorder is less likely to secure stable housing and employment in the community, leaving this individual at risk of relapse (Russell & Cramer, 2016). A study conducted in Toronto found that nearly 10% of the city’s fatal drug overdoses involved a newly released inmate (Howlett, 2016).
The research clearly indicates the level of need for inmates to be provided services in the community upon release. The New Jersey Legislature introduced Bill 3523 in the Assembly Law and Public Safety Committee on April 4, 2016. If passed, this Bill would require the NJ Division of Parole to offer the same post-release services to inmates who complete or “max-out” their sentence that are provided to those inmates who are released on parole. Twice as many inmates in the NJDOC “max-out” their sentence as are released on parole. At the present moment, NJ parolees have access to a variety of services that are not offered to “max-outs,” such as emergency housing placements, drug treatment programs, residential programs, and other necessary support services (State of New Jersey, 2016).
The 2011 recidivism rate for New Jersey was approximately 5%. Broken down that same year, New Jersey reported a 32% reconviction rate for parolees and a 53% reconviction rate for “max-outs” (NJ Department of Corrections State Parole Board, 2011). From an economic perspective, New Jersey appears to be saving money by not providing post-release services to all inmates. However, money that is saved upfront is later lost down the road when inmates do not successfully transition back into the community and in turn rely on public assistance or are re-incarcerated.
Post-release services are known to work well in the federal prison system. In fact, federal policy states that every inmate in the Bureau of Prisons is required to participate in a community supervision program upon release. These community release programs are similar to the post-release services currently provided to the NJ parolees and include; assistance in securing housing, employment, and substance use and mental health services. A 2005 report revealed that the recidivism rate in the federal system is nearly half the rate state prisons are reporting, and only three out of ten federal prisoners returned to prison, while six out ten state prisoners found themselves re-incarcerated over the course of five years (Markman, Durose, Rantala, Tiedt, 2016). Post-release services better meet the needs of inmates than not offering this option at all.
As an intern for University Correctional HealthCare, the healthcare provider for all of New Jersey’s inmates, I conducted a performance improvement project aimed at identifying barriers to inmates attending their post-release appointments. Current policy states that only inmates who are on the mental health and/or medical roster will be set up with their first post-release appointment in the community if the inmate consents. These appointments are set up by the mental health and/or medical staff in the facility and no follow-up is conducted once the inmate is released. I interviewed 55 male inmates who had returned to the Intake Center after just one year of less of being back in the community from a previous sentence. The majority of inmates reported not following through with even their first appointment, let alone establishing a long-term relationship with an outside agency. Reasons for not making their first appointment included but were not limited to, forgetfulness, lack of adequate transportation, lack of health insurance, and lack of motivation. I believe that if these inmates had been provided a post-release service, such as a case manager to assist in mitigating barriers, we would see greater success in the community and less inmates returning to prison.
Bill 3523 has the power to further reduce recidivism rates in New Jersey, a state that has worked to reduce its’ prison population by 26% in the last 17 years (Sullivan, 2015). As shown in the federal system, post release services influence whether or not an inmate is re-incarcerated. Providing the same post release services to “max-outs” that are provided to parolees, would not only ensure a more successful transition for inmates headed back into the community, but it would also complement the already existing effort to reduce our state’s prison population.
Columbia Univ., N. A. (2010). Behind bars II: Substance abuse and America’s prison population. National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.
Eisen, L. B. & Chettiar, I. (2015). The reverse mass incarceration act. Brennan Center for Justice. Retrieved from https://www.brennancenter.org/sites/default/files/publications/The_Reverse_Mass_Incarceration_Act%20.pdf
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Howlett, K. (2016, July 6). Newly released inmates face higher risk of overdose death, study shows. The Globe and Mail. Retrieved from http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/one-in-ten-overdoses-in-ontario-are-former-prison-inmates/article30768410/
Markman, J., Durose, M., Rantala, R., & Tiedt, A. (2016, June). Recidivism of offenders placed on federal community supervision in 2005: Patterns from 2005 to 2010. Retrieved from https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/ropfcs05p0510.pdf
Nally, J. M., Lockwood, S., Taiping, H., & Knutson, K. (2014). Post-release recidivism and employment among different types of released offenders: A 5-year follow-up study in the United States. International Journal of Criminal Justice Sciences, 9(1), 16.
NJ Department of Corrections State Parole Board. (2011). Release outcome 2011: A three-year follow-up. Retrieved from http://www.state.nj.us/corrections/pdf/offender_statistics/2016/Release_Outcome_Report_2011.pdf
Sullivan, C. (2016). There is a stunning gap between the number of white and black inmates in America’s prisons. The Sentencing Project.
State of New Jersey. (2016). Assembly, no. 3523. Trenton, NJ: State of New Jersey 217th Legislature.
Walmsley, R. (2013). World population list, 10th Ed. International Centre for Prison Studies. Retrieved from http://www.apcca.org/uploads/10th_Edition_2013.pdf