“The recent disclosures about security lapses and other failures at the halfway houses contracted by the Department of Corrections (DOC) document a disturbing history of mismanagement and neglect that has jeopardized public safety and cost the lives of innocent individuals.” – Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-37) in a letter of July 10, 2012, to NJ Department of Corrections Commissioner Gary M. Lanigan
After a lengthy investigation State Comptroller A. Matthew Boxer in June 2011 issued a report documenting “crucial weaknesses in state oversight of inmate halfway houses.” He made 28 recommendations to enhance DOC oversight. The report indicated “DOC’s response notes that it is working to implement the recommendations.” In June of this year (twelve months later) the NY Times published a series of three frightening articles which revealed that halfway houses were still plagued by “escapes, gang activity, sexual attacks, and rampant drug use.” Senator Weinberg’s conclusion: “Obviously, whatever changes were made have failed.”
In her letter to Commissioner Lanigan Senator Weinberg requested “full accounting by the DOC of its actions since June of last year to correct the problems identified by the comptroller and an explanation of why these actions failed.” Community Education Center (CEC) operates 70% of these facilities for inmates who are finishing their sentences and parolees who are re-entering society. The Times reported at one CEC site an inmate escaped in the process of being transported and murdered his girlfriend hours later. Another individual at the same facility murdered a resident being held on a motor vehicle violation.
The legislature has moved with speed to launch investigations to address this failure. The Assembly is planning an investigation tentatively in July. The Senate Legislative Oversight Committee chaired by Senator Robert Gordon (D-37) and vice-chaired by Senator Barbara Buono (D-18) has scheduled a hearing for July 26. Senator Gordon said, “Clearly, there is something going wrong. I believe the Legislature has an obligation to determine what the problem is and to develop solutions.”
More beyond the fold on problems and solutions for the upcoming investigations
To understand the problems and seek solutions a key first step is a careful review of DOC procedures, rules, monitoring and action reports in the past one to three years. Do the reports document unannounced visits? What procedures and measures were used to evaluate performance? What steps were taken by DOC to better enforce current procedures and what new requirements were placed on halfway houses? What were the outcomes in terms of escapes, violence, gang activity, drug use, security, inmate counseling/training, and staff training/performance?
Another significant problem is that CEC operates in multiple states and has grown large and wealthy as a for-profit firm with deep pockets for political campaign contributions and ample money to hire lobbyists and PR personnel. With CEC having 70% of the halfway house business in NJ it occupies a monopolistic position and inhibits other groups from applying for DOC halfway house contracts.
One solution is to enforce the law which restricts DOC to delegating correctional responsibilities to non-profit entities. CEC has circumvented or violated the law by creating a non-profit organization to contract with DOC and then to funnel the monies to CEC. There are suspension and debarment procedures that could be used to prevent CEC from future grant applications and even to terminate current grants should investigations determine such is warranted. There are also federal lobbying and State “pay to play” laws which if shown to be violated could lead to debarment.
Two desirable outcomes are to open the way for fair competition to genuine non-profits and to assure that the more dangerous inmates are retained in prison and not lodged in halfway houses. There is a lot of work to be done to rid NJ of what Paul Krugman calls “a corrupt nexus of privatization and patronage that is undermining government across much of our nation.”
In her letter to Commissioner Lanigan, Sen. Weinberg summarized some of the more important findings in Comptroller Boxer’s report:
• The Department of Corrections (“DOC”) is not adequately monitoring its state-funded halfway houses and failed to take appropriate action against halfway house providers following inmate escapes;
• The state has not effectively measured the performance of its halfway house program;
• The state overpaid 10 private halfway house providers by $587,186 over a six-year period due to a series of mathematical errors in the calculation of per diem rates charged by the providers;
• The DOC failed to exercise its contractual right to collect pre-set damages from halfway house providers that violated contract terms;
• The State failed to meet its own guidelines for on-site monitoring of the halfway houses, conducting only a small fraction of the required number of site visits;
• No site visits were truly unannounced as required under DOC policy.