Ready For Re-Entry?

The state is sending more of its prisoners to low-security halfway houses. Some fear there are dangerous criminals in the mix.

More than 50,000 individuals have passed through Delaney Hall since it opened in 2000.
Courtesy of the West Family/The Star-Ledger.

In 2007, Rafael Miranda, then 28, was sentenced to three years in prison on drug and weapons charges.

Two years later, the East Orange man was moved to Kintock House North, a halfway house in Newark.
Like many halfway houses, Kintock has alarms on its doors but no fence around its perimeter. After four months at Kintock, Miranda fled. On the lam for five months, he got into an argument last April with a man in a sports bar on Mulberry Street in Newark and allegedly shot and killed him. Miranda is now in state prison in Trenton awaiting trial on murder and escape charges.

The scenario, although hardly the norm, is the type that raises concern in law enforcement circles.
Increasingly, New Jersey is putting its inmates into residential treatment facilities—commonly referred to as halfway houses—as they come to the end of their sentences. At any point in time, about 2,700 of New Jersey’s approximately 25,000 inmates are finishing their sentences in one of twenty privately owned, state-contracted facilities. Ten years ago, the state budgeted for about 2,200 inmates to be sent to such treatment facilities.

The halfway houses provide a transitional setting for inmates to serve the remainder of their sentences. In an effort to reduce recidivism, inmates are given therapy, substance-abuse counseling, and job training to better prepare them for life outside prison. Some of the programs provide employment opportunities for former offenders. Theoretically, these re-entry programs are for the lowest-level offenders. To qualify, inmates also must have demonstrated good behavior in prison.

But the facilities are far less secure than state prisons, and that has some in law enforcement concerned. Typically, there are curfews and bed checks, but inmates are not locked in their rooms at night; those who have earned the privilege are let out during the day to work or are given weekend furloughs. Further, the facilities are staffed with counselors and private security personnel, rather than unionized corrections officers—though they are subject to the security and operational standards of the American Correctional Association and the state Department of Corrections (DOC).

Perhaps most disturbing, as the state shifts greater emphasis to these programs, it appears that a growing number of inmates convicted of more serious crimes are becoming halfway-house candidates. According to DOC data, 20 percent of those in halfway houses in 2010 to date had been found guilty of violent offenses. In 2008, the figure was 12 percent; in 2009, 18 percent.

Halfway houses themselves are not immune to violence. Last year, a Newark barber, Derek West Harris, was beaten and strangled to death inside Delaney Hall, a Newark halfway house, by three fellow residents who allegedly wanted to rob him. Harris, 51, had been arrested for driving an unregistered vehicle and for not paying his traffic tickets. When he couldn’t post bail, he was placed in Delaney Hall. Now his family is suing Essex County and Community Education Centers Inc. (CEC), the West Caldwell company that operates Delaney Hall, for inadequate oversight, security, and training.

A CEC spokesman says the incident “was fully investigated by Essex County and resulted in no action being taken by the county.” He adds, “Since opening in 2000, more than 50,000 individuals have passed through [Delaney Hall], and so this incident, while tragic, was an isolated, rare occurrence.”

Indeed, system-wide, the potential for escapes is the larger concern. Over the past five years, there have been 2,058 escapes from halfway houses—although some inmates are classified as escapees merely for returning late from work. Eighty-three of those escapees remain at large. In 2010 alone, 226 inmates walked away from halfway houses as of mid-September; at deadline, 34 of those escapees had not been recaptured.

Given the nature of halfway houses, escapes seem inevitable. “We could have had a fence 10,000 feet high, and it wouldn’t have made a difference,” says David Fawkner, chairman of the board and recently retired CEO of the Kintock Group, referring to the escape by Rafael Miranda. He notes that Miranda did not flee in the dark of night. He simply didn’t return from work. “We’re not a jail. We’re not a prison. We’re a halfway house, and that’s exactly what it means: It’s halfway between a jail and the community.”

In the face of this reality, the trend in New Jersey is to move even more prisoners into less restrictive settings. Governor Chris Christie’s current budget (for fiscal 2011) calls for 91 more beds in community treatment facilities than the previous budget, bringing the total to 2,720. That’s 199 more beds than budgeted five years ago. The plan includes language that allows corrections officials to reallocate funding targeted for state-prison beds to halfway-house beds. Christie’s office did not respond to requests for comment on its corrections strategy.

The re-entry process works something like this: Inmates who are well behaved, have passed a psychological evaluation, have reached full minimum-custody status, and are two years from parole eligibility—legislation passed in January increased the eligibility period from eighteen months—are sent to one of two privately run assessment centers in Kearny and Trenton for about 60 days. There they receive counseling and are taught coping skills. They are then given a battery of tests in an effort to determine their potential for violence, recidivism, or escape. A separate test determines any degree of substance abuse.

Those deemed ready for the outside—about 80 percent—are sent to a halfway house, where they receive further training and counseling until they are eligible for parole. The remainder of the inmates are sent back to prison. Sex offenders and arsonists cannot participate.

There are compelling financial reasons for moving inmates out of prison. While it costs about $49,000 a year to house and feed an inmate in state prison, it costs only about $30,000 to keep them in a halfway house—largely because of savings on personnel.

The state also needs a place to put inmates. Although a recent report by the Sentencing Project and Justice Strategy, two criminal-justice research firms, says New Jersey’s prison population has declined 19 percent since 1999, the state’s prison system is operating above what the corrections department calls its rated capacity. The supply of beds was significantly reduced by the closure in June 2009 of Riverfront Prison in Camden, which at times housed more than 1,000 inmates. The prison was closed as a cost-cutting measure and to open the way for redevelopment of the Camden waterfront.

State officials are also drastically reducing the number of state inmates housed in county jails. That number has been cut from 1,518 last year to the current 743. The new state budget cuts the figure down to just 200—for a savings of $20.4 million. Corrections officials plan to accomplish this by double-bunking, eliminating certain specialized units in state prison, and to the “maximum extent possible without jeopardizing community safety, increasing the use of community programs”—such as halfway houses—according to Christie’s budget plan. Some $64.6 million is allocated for halfway houses in the current budget, an increase of $3.1 million over fiscal 2010.

Not everyone agrees that halfway houses or other re-entry or community-based programs are effective. Some critics don’t even see them as a means of saving money.

Nancy Wolff, director of the Center for Behavioral Health Services and Criminal Justice Research at Rutgers University, advocates rehabilitating inmates while they are still in prison rather than on the outside. She argues that, if inmates have reached minimum custody status, and the Department of Corrections has prepared them for the community before they are released, halfway houses are redundant. From that perspective, halfway houses only add to the cost of rehabilitation, she says.

Still, there is substantial evidence that halfway houses work. For decades, studies have shown education, work release, and substance-abuse programs can help lower recidivism. A 1994 Federal Bureau of Prisons study found that the more educational programs successfully completed for each six months confined, the lower the rate of repeat offenses. More recently, a 2007 study by the nonpartisan Washington State Institute for Public Policy found that inmates who took part in a work-release program were less likely than their non-working counterparts to re-offend within three years.

Closer to home, a 2009 study of New Jersey’s Day Reporting Center and Halfway Back Programs—both of which supervise parolees—found that only 20 percent of the former inmates landed back in prison after participating in the programs. That figure was nearly 40 percent for inmates who received no outside supervision before being released.

But while studies tie lower recidivism rates to re-entry programs, critics say there’s a reason: Inmates in halfway houses are usually the state’s best behaved. Ironically, those who are released into society without supervision are typically prisoners who have served their maximum sentence, a distinction usually reserved for inmates who have behaved badly. Even Corrections Commissioner Gary Lanigan acknowledges it is difficult to assess the effectiveness of the re-entry programs, because they are being sent the best inmates the prison system has to offer.

“The question, becomes, are they creating choir boys or are they being sent choir boys?” Lanigan says. “They’re being sent the best of the lot, so to speak. I would expect and hope that the recidivism rate amongst that group is going to be lower.”

Even with the impressive success rate, there are those who pass through the re-entry programs with their hands over their ears—including dangerous gang members, according to observers.

“With young gang guys, there’s always something running interference where they are,” says a former inmate who has been through several community programs but preferred anonymity. “The guys in these programs are probably paying more attention to the guy in charge of the gang than the person trying to help them.”

It’s not just gang members who resist the programs. Take Edward Slade. Now 38, Slade says he began dealing drugs when he was 15, and a childhood friend walked into his bedroom and dropped some vials of crack on his bed. “These things cost $20,” the friend said. “Let’s go out and sell them.”
“It was a life-defining moment,” Slade says.

Slade did his first stint in prison on a drug charge at age 17. After his release, he says he went back to selling drugs in his Jersey City neighborhood, eventually developing a posse of about seven men. He acquired six guns and had plenty of money, cars, jewelry, and women.

He also grew increasingly violent. As he recalls it, the more money he made, the more paranoid he got. It only got worse when he inadvertently flirted with another man’s girlfriend, and the man went after Slade with a knife, slashing his face. Slade, who nearly bled to death, required 54 stitches. Before he could get his revenge, Slade was nabbed for armed robbery. He was sent away a second time. He later served a third sentence for parole violations.

Slade had participated in at least three community-based programs, all to no avail. It wasn’t until his last trip through Delaney Hall that an administrator who knew Slade suggested he attend Fathers Now, a program that teaches young men how to parent. It resonated with him. Slade says the relationship he has with his two sons, ages 5 and 9, is the best thing that ever happened to him. “My goal now is to be with my sons, when they have a life-defining moment,” Slade says.

But Slade is skeptical about the effectiveness of re-entry programs—not so much because they are bad, but because some offenders are too stubborn to learn. He says the counselors at Delaney Hall will pass out notebooks and pens and ask the men to write down their six-month goal. Nine out of ten will say, “A job.” But they’ll want a $20-an-hour job, and they don’t have the skills to get a $20-an-hour job. So when they fail to get that job, they go back to what they know: the street.

“I was in that category, so I know,” he says. “There’s so much help. But help is nothing if that person is not ready to apply it.”

For some in law enforcement, the fear is that convicts are being released too early from prison with too little supervision. They say it jeopardizes public safety.

“There are valid concerns about halfway houses and the degree of supervision they have, and how much trust we can place in the private enterprises running them,” says Hudson County prosecutor Edward J. De Fazio. Prosecutors are concerned that corrections officials now have to dig deeper into the prison population to fill halfway-house beds. As a result, they are going to wind up letting out some bad apples, critics say.

“I don’t think the public realizes how many inmates who have been sentenced to state prison for relatively lengthy terms are in fact out during the day,” De Fazio says. “I think as soon as you have a serious incident, there’s going to be an outcry.”

In fact, serious incidents have already occured. One of the most notorious escapees was Carnell Davis, who left a Hoboken halfway house in April 2005 near the end of a ten-year sentence for a 1997 armed robbery in Jersey City. After his escape, Davis allegedly shot and killed two men before being taken back into custody. After an unsuccessful prosecution, Davis pleaded guilty to two weapons charges in the case and was sentenced to fifteen years. Separately, he was found guilty and sentenced to 50 years for a second armed robbery that occurred the same day.

James Gourdine, a drug dealer from Jersey City, had served less than a year on a drug possession charge in 2008 when he was sent to a halfway house and escaped. When police found him less than four months later, he had 333 bags of cocaine, heroin, and marijuana, and a 9mm Glock with hollow-point bullets, according to published reports. He was convicted on one drug and one weapons charge in relation to that arrest.

Leland Washington, 49 and a convicted thief, escaped from a halfway house in January 2009. Less than three months later he was arrested for allegedly holding up a gas station at knifepoint.

Officials at CEC say walk-aways from New Jersey halfway houses fell 27 percent, according to a study covering 1997 to 2003. But Corrections Commissioner Lanigan says, “It is imperative to recognize that, even with the best risk-assessment tools in place, there is never a guarantee that an inmate will not re-offend.”

Kintock Group’s CEO Fawkner agrees that no one can predict whether former inmates will commit a crime. But, he says, you have two choices: release prisoners to halfway houses or directly to the street. “The research, as I understand it, clearly shows people coming from our programs do better in their adjustment,” he says.

Even those who support community-based programs say it is risky to put certain offenders, like those with weapons convictions, in halfway houses. Yet 2.4 percent of the halfway-house population have a conviction for possession of a firearm, which in New Jersey was recently changed from a third-degree to a second-degree crime.

“Crimes with a firearm should be the line-in-the-sand offense,” says John Thomson, Camden’s police chief. “Seeing firsthand the devastation illegal firearms are causing on our urban centers, especially Camden, sentences for gun offenses should never be in the equation for early release.”

Gregory Kelley, until recently head of the correction officers’ union, PBA Local 105, puts it bluntly. “If I have a drug charge on the left side, but on the other side, I got charged with possession of a bomb, do I have to detonate that bomb for you to send me back to prison, or are you going to classify me to go to a drug house?”

Kelley says the union is not opposed to drug treatment centers for minor offenders, but adds that prison officials are muddying the waters by throwing hardcore felons into the mix.

Caren Chesler is a frequent contributor.

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