The bill would require the state to create new standards for transitional housing for people released from prison. (Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)
An Assembly panel on Monday advanced a bill intended to help more ex-offenders find housing when they are released from prison.
The measure (S771), which passed the Assembly’s law and public safety committee unanimously, would require the state’s community affairs and corrections departments to create new standards for public transitional housing for former inmates.
Sean Washington testified on behalf of the bill. Washington was locked up for a double homicide from 1995 until 2020, when prosecutors dropped the charges following an appellate court ruling on new evidence in the case, setting him and his co-defendant free.
After his release, Washington told lawmakers Monday, he “came home to nothing,” jumping from temporary home to temporary home. As hard as he tried to find housing, he said, it was impossible without a credit history and with a long stint in jail in his background.
“That’s the No. 1 thing for prisoners when they come home after long-term incarceration — is having housing. You have nothing. They have all these programs to give us things, but if you have no place to store it, it’s pointless,” said Washington, who works and lives in Camden.
The bill calls for regulations on reentry housing to ensure the physical safety of residents, provide emergency and longer-term housing, and assist residents in obtaining permanent housing. They would set standards for substance abuse treatment, medical services, independent living skills training, and more.
More than 6,000 people were released from New Jersey prisons under pandemic-era legislation intended to limit the spread of COVID-19 among prisoners and prison staff.
The law, signed by Gov. Phil Murphy in 2020, allowed some inmates convicted of many crimes — excluding serious offenses like murder and sexual assault — to shave off some of their sentences if they were within a year of being released.
Antonne Henshaw, executive director of the Transformative Justice Initiative, said many of the people released from prison ended up living on sidewalks, in parks, and under bridges.
“When we had this mass exodus, rightfully so, of people home with the COVID credits, you began to see bridges fill up because there was nowhere to put them. Not only did this become a public safety threat, it became a public health threat,” said Henshaw.
Henshaw said the bill advanced Monday would help fix the prison-to-homelessness pipeline.
The measure, sponsored by Democrats Eliana Pintor Marin, Verlina Reynolds-Jackson, and Anthony Verrelli, passed the full Senate unanimously in May.
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