New Jersey State Prison (Photo by Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)
New Jersey’s correctional officers would get fatter paychecks, prisoner re-entry programs would get millions more in funding, and corrections oversight would be beefed up under the $48.9 billion budget proposal Gov. Phil Murphy announced Tuesday.
The plan, which Murphy detailed during an hourlong address in the Statehouse in Trenton, hints at the governor’s criminal justice priorities as the Democrat heads into his second term.
Some of the increases touched on topics reformers have been advocating for years, like tighter prisons oversight. Murphy recommends expanding funding of the Office of the Corrections Ombudsperson, which is tasked with protecting inmates.
As correctional officer applicants dwindle, the budget plan includes funding to raise correctional officer salaries as a strategy to improve recruitment and retention among the prison workforce.
William Sullivan heads the New Jersey Policemen’s Benevolent Association Local 105, which represents more than 5,000 state correctional officers.
A decade ago, Sullivan said, correctional officer recruitment classes averaged 200 to 225 candidates per class, with four classes held annually and 150 officers graduating per class. Now, recruitment classes average 50 to 60 candidates with just 35 to 40 candidates graduating per class, he said. At the same time, a quarter of correctional officers are eligible to retire, he added.
More funding for salaries “should help with staffing and retention — definitely a positive thing,” he said.
Murphy’s plan calls for a 3.7% increase in state corrections spending, with $1.03 billion proposed, up $37 million from the current appropriation. That doesn’t include the New Jersey State Parole Board, which falls under but operates independently of the Department of Corrections.
The planned increase strikes one criminal justice reformer as questionable, given how the state’s incarcerated population has fallen by half in the last decade and plummeted further since the pandemic started, due to an early-release policy the Murphy administration implemented to slow coronavirus spread behind bars.
If Murphy is looking for a way to reduce spending, New Jersey should close its “wasteful and nearly 80% empty youth prisons,” said Yannick Wood, director of criminal justice reform for the New Jersey Institute of Social Justice.
“We want New Jersey to finally close its empty youth prisons, and we can use the tens of millions of savings on that to help elevate youth,” Wood said.
Less than 340 youth now are being held or supervised by the state’s Juvenile Justice Commission, compared to more than 900 a decade ago, state data shows. Reformers have long called on the state to close its three juvenile prisons and focus instead on rehabilitating wayward youth in community-based, restorative programs.
Wood questioned why Murphy wants to spend more on corrections staff when the state plans to close a prison in the next year — its fourth in four years — and the state’s incarcerated population has fallen steadily since 2010, when nearly 25,300 people were behind bars. About 12,550 now are incarcerated in state prisons, according to the budget proposal.
The budget plan includes new and expanded funding for several corrections programs, including:
- Adding $4 million to New Jersey Locally Empowered, Accountable, and Determined, a program that supports community-based nonprofits that work to help ex-offenders reintegrate into society.
- Boosting funding to the Office of the Corrections Ombudsperson by $495,000 to hire more investigators.
- Adding an unspecified amount of money to implement the Dignity Act and the Isolated Confinement Restriction Act. The Dignity Act, passed after an inmate abuse scandal at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women, requires independent oversight of the Department of Corrections, among other things. The Isolated Confinement Restriction Act restricts how long facilities can hold someone in solitary confinement and bans solitary confinement for people with mental illness, inmates under 21 or over 65, and inmates who are pregnant or LGBT “except in rare, specified circumstances.”
Murphy’s budget proposal includes an unspecified amount of funding to beef up staffing in the state Bureau of Securities and Medicaid Fraud to crack down on fraud.
The governor also vowed to maintain funding to support community-based violence intervention programs. Such programs got $10 million in the current budget, which went to 25 nonprofits in 15 communities statewide.
But Wood noted $10 million means just 0.02% of the total budget supports violence intervention programs. That’s not enough, he said.
“We know that these programs are critical to public safety, particularly in New Jersey’s urban centers,” he said. “We are looking for New Jersey to double down and increase this funding.”
A Murphy spokeswoman said the governor considers both violence intervention programs and law enforcement as “critical areas.”
“Gov. Murphy believes that we must take action across the board to combat the national gun violence epidemic, including providing funding for both boots-on-the-ground community-based violence intervention programs and law enforcement,” spokeswoman Alyana Alfaro said. “This budget proposal furthers his commitment to both critical areas.”
Reformers have urged public officials for years to shift funding priorities from policing and corrections to community-building efforts like affordable housing, mental health counseling, and employment assistance, yet many public officials spend far more on police than health and human services, according to an October report from New Jersey Policy Perspective.
That report called on lawmakers to instead prioritize spending on policies and programs that target the structural roots of crime, such as violence interruption programs, early childhood education, neighborhood restoration, and addiction treatment and other health care.
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