Top Dems want to force Murphy to close 2 prisons, send more inmates to halfway houses.

Posted Jun 25, 2019

The state budget lawmakers sent to Gov. Phil Murphy would pressure his administration to reshape New Jersey’s prison system, calling for the closure of two of the state’s 13 prisons and cutting the corrections department budget by more than $40 million.

Language inserted by state legislators would also seek to divert an additional 1,000 prisoners into halfway houses, a nearly 40 percent increase.

The budget proposal comes amid tension between the first-term Democratic governor and legislative leaders from his own party. Murphy has refused to say exactly what he’ll do about the budget lawmakers sent him, which he must act on by Sunday to avoid a government shutdown.

Prison reform advocates said the goal of consolidating prisons was laudable but would hinge on the details, which remain scant.

Jennifer Sciortino, a spokeswoman for the state Treasury, said in an e-mail it “remains a mystery as to how the Legislature justified these savings for the upcoming fiscal year.”

Corrections union officials are calling on the governor to block the move, but a spokesman said Murphy only has the power to cut spending from the budget lawmakers sent him, not restore money legislators carved out.

Representatives for legislative leaders would say little on the record about the prisons plan. State Senate President Stephen Sweeneydeclined to comment Tuesday afternoon.

The budget calls on the state corrections commissioner to oversee a “restructuring” plan aimed at slashing overtime costs and shutting down the Vroom Central Reception and Assignment Facility in Trenton, which serves as temporary housing for inmates awaiting formal prison assignments, as well as the Albert C. Wagner Youth Correctional Facility in Burlington County.

The restructuring plan, due by October of this year, would seek to cut at least $40 million by mid-2020 and overhaul the prison system by mid-2022.

The cuts would comprise about four percent of the department’s overall funds and the budget language notes it would seek to “minimize involuntary separation,” meaning layoffs.

Labor representatives said the move amounts to “union busting” because the plan calls for the state to significantly ramp up its reliance on halfway houses, which are privately run.

“Not only would this legislation negatively impact the entire department, but it will cost the state more money to implement a diversion to halfway houses (rather) than our current system of state prisons,” Brian Renshaw, the president of PBA 105, said in a statement after lawmakers approved their budget.

Currently, there are about 2,600 people assigned to halfway houses in the state. The legislature’s plan calls for diverting an additional 1,000 prisoners into that system.

New Jersey significantly ramped up its halfway house program about a decade ago, relying largely on privately run facilities.

A 2012 investigation by The New York Times found problems at such facilities ranging from escapes and lax security to drug abuse and violence. That series also found intimate ties between a leading halfway house provider in New Jersey and state leaders, including former Gov.Chris Christie.

A 2011 audit of the state’s oversight of halfway houses found the the corrections department failed to "adequately monitor its state-funded halfway houses and failed to take appropriate action against halfway house providers following inmate escapes.”

Adrian Ellison, the president of FOP 174, which represents the corrections system’s special investigators, said his union was “very concerned” by the push to divert more inmates to halfway houses.

Several years ago, he said, the state eliminated a unit in the department’s Special Investigations Division that kept tabs on inmates at halfway houses to prevent “walkaways," drug use and other problems.

“These inmates will be placed into halfway houses where there is no direct investigative oversight, and where the NJDOC only has investigators to respond reactively to complaints," he told NJ Advance Media.

“This will exacerbate the problems caused by decisions made by the last administration” to slash the number of investigators in the state’s prison system, he said.

Overtime costs for the department are significant, running about $38 million last year, budget documents show. But corrections officials say they would have to hire an additional 354 staff members to significantly rein in overtime.

New Jersey has seen a significant decline in its prison population, from more than 30,000 in the late 1990s to less than 17,000 today, and advocates in recent months have been pressing the state to embrace alternatives to traditional prison sentences, particularly for younger inmates.

Those efforts have focused primarily on juvenile facilities, however. New Jersey’s three youth prisons, on the other hand, generally serve adult inmates in their late teens and early 20s. Those prisons have been running at an occupancy rate below 70 percent, according to state budget documents.

Alexander Shalom, a senior attorney at the New Jersey chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said state lawmakers are increasingly coming around to the idea that “we should only be incarcerating kids as a last resort.”

“The same thing is true for adults,” Shalom said. "If it doesn’t promote public safety, if it doesn’t save money, incarceration should only be used when absolutely necessary.”

Shalom said his group hadn’t dug into the details of the Legislature’s plan, and cautioned that it “obviously doesn’t make sense ever to just close prisons once populations drop a little bit."

But, he added, pointing to New Jersey’s dwindling inmate population, “if you’ve had sustained reduction and plan for having further reductions, it makes sense for the state to say, ‘OK, let’s look at some savings associated with these reductions.’”

Corrections officials don’t want to move as quickly as state lawmakers, however.

During budget hearings, acting Corrections Commissioner Marcus Hicks said the state wasn’t planning on immediately shutting down any facilities.

In response to questions from lawmakers, Hicks wrote that "it is difficult to determine the costs savings for depopulating" the Wagner prison because the facility provides utilities such as steam and potable water to other prisons and contains a sewage treatment plant "that serves the surrounding community."

A spokesman for the Department of Corrections declined to comment. Spokespeople for the Senate and Assembly majority offices declined to answer questions about the proposal.

Sciortino, the Treasury spokeswoman, said the work of studying and implementing prison closures and other cost-cutting measures “responsibly and thoughtfully would require significantly more time and cost” than lawmakers are requiring in their budget.

“Additionally, the Legislature’s estimate does not account for fixed costs, capital needs, or labor contracts,” she said in an e-mail Tuesday.

Lawmakers’ plan comes with an escape hatch of sorts: The language in the budget sent to Murphy indicates “there is appropriated an amount” of money to plug holes in the department’s budget “upon a determination by the commissioner” that the restructuring would not save the expected $40 million.

It’s unclear where the money to make up the difference would come from if corrections officials can’t achieve the $40 million savings lawmakers are after, though legislative leaders are expecting a $1.4 billion year-end surplus.

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