America can no longer afford a probation and parole system that works well for only a small percentage of individuals leaving prison, former New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey says.
“The present system is radically flawed,” McGreevey told journalists and leading prison policy experts at a conference at John Jay College.
McGreevey, who is now chair of the New Jersey Reentry Corporation, argued that most community supervision programs lack the resources to offer the kind of practical skills that can help individuals navigate the complex transition from prison to civil society once they have completed their sentence.
More than four million Americans are now under some form of post-release supervision, almost twice the number of individuals incarcerated in prisons and jails.
Even in his own state, which has been celebrated for passing some of the nation’s most progressive laws that reduce barriers to reentry, McGreevey said it was impossible to “change in eight months” the habits and behaviors developed over an eight-year prison term.
“There’s no reward for self-initiation of productive behavior,” McGreevey said in a luncheon keynote address Friday to the 15th annual H.F. Guggenheim Symposium on Crime in America.
“Prisons are a cancerous element to people making good, healthy decisions.”
Last October, the New Jersey Reentry Services Commission, co-chaired by McGreevey, released a sweeping report calling for 100 “action steps” to improve the lives of those released from prison. It recommended, for example, the establishment of a medically-assisted treatment program for inmates with substance use disorders that would begin while they were still incarcerated.
The commission found that just 800 incarcerated individuals were part of a medically-assisted treatment program, while more than a quarter of the 19,000 incarcerated persons in the state’s prison system have an opioid use disorder and more roughly three quarters have a substance use disorder of some kind.
“Our program participants are 129 times more likely to die from opioid overdose in the first two weeks after release,” McGreevey said in his presentation of the 14-member commission’s report.
The report focused on healthcare, addiction treatment, employment, legal services and housing for former offenders.
In his remarks at John Jay, McGreevey said that while he has seen success stories with former inmates who receive necessary services, many have trouble initiating positive steps forward because prison life “atrophies” decision making, particularly when earlier lives were marked by trauma.
They have little emotional resilience, he said.
McGreevey resigned from office in 2004 following a personal scandal, and after a stay in a seminary has worked as a counselor and administrator with people transitioning from prison to new lives.
Before being elected governor, he was a prosecutor, mayor and state legislator.
In response to questions, McGreevey said his own experience had helped him understand others who had experienced trauma.
He recalled that he “blew up his career” when “at the top of the food chain.” While in religious retreat, he focused on the fact that he had always had a passion for working with young people from “challenging circumstances.”
After he resigned as governor, he found himself “shoulder to shoulder” with those who had “not started at the same place” in life as he had.
“We all want the same things in life,” he said.
Nancy Bilyeau is deputy editor of The Crime Report.