A state commission is recommending 100 ways that New Jersey can improve the process of returning inmates to civilian life at the end of their incarceration, including comprehensive testing for hepatitis B and C and expanding addiction services.

The New Jersey Reentry Services Commission report suggests changing how child support obligations are handled so the costs don’t crush newly released inmates, requiring municipal fines to be income-based so they’re less of a financial burden and doubling to $80 million a year what the state spends for its rental assistance program.

“The overwhelming bulk of the recommendations are merely addressing gaps in service and utilizing Medicaid and MAT (medication-assisted treatment) more thoughtfully and strategically,” said former Gov. Jim McGreevey, one of the panel’s four chairmen.

“Make it easier for people, once they are released from prison, to reintegrate into society,” said co-chairman Larry Lustberg, an attorney. “We as a society have created obstacles to them that can and should go away.”

Among the speakers at a Statehouse news conference were a half-dozen who have been incarcerated and/or battled addiction and said support services were necessary for getting their lives back on track.

Haywood Gandy said he couldn’t leave his halfway house because of warrants for 35 outstanding fees and fines – but that because he couldn’t leave, he had no way of earning money to pay them off.

“When you leave with those barriers, how do we, how am I supposed to succeed?” Gandy said.

“Those fines can and should be lessened, even eliminated in many cases. Their payments should be based upon an ability to pay,” Lustberg said. “When I say this, I’m not speaking on a blank slate. Other states have done this. And New Jersey, which has long viewed itself as a leader in the area of criminal justice reform, should join those states and make this an easier path for those who are leaving prison.

“Why is it so important?” Lustberg said. “Because if we don’t do this, they’ll be back. They’ll commit crimes, and we’ve seen that. And it’s not because they want to, it’s because they have no choice. And we’ve put them in that position.”

Similarly, Lustberg said, there should be a limit on the amount of money that can be garnished from wages for child support and the percentage of income that could be dedicated to that. The report says child support should not keep accumulating while a person is incarcerated and can’t make payments.

“There’s no question that people’s child support obligations are serious ones and that they need to be respected. And nobody is saying that people can simply escape their child support obligations,” he said. “But the point is to not make the obligation so daunting that it leads to hopelessness. So impossible to meet that they’re bereft of enough income to live on. So impossible that their only option is to commit another crime and go back to jail.”

Two lawmakers who were co-chairmen of the commission said the recommendations are important, although a challenge to implement.

“When you fall down, you have a right to believe that someone will reach down and help you up,” said state Sen. Sandra Cunningham, D-Hudson.

“And now the important thing is, how do we find the resources – because I know that’s where he brings me in – to make sure that are programs are really running and have the adequate funding,” said Assemblywoman Eliana Pintor Marin, D-Essex, who chairs the Assembly Budget Committee. “And that is always the bottom line problem. This is not a secret.”

Aakash Shah, medical director for the New Jersey Reentry Corporation, said he suspects that cost is a reason why the state only screens some incoming inmates for hepatitis. Other states screen everyone, which is what the report recommends.

“Hepatitis is a scourge. It has been for decades, if not centuries. But I think the one thing that is different today is that it is a curable scourge,” Shah said. “In order to cure it, however, you must treat it, and in order to treat it, you must screen for it.”

Shah said a study has found that a selective screening may miss up to one-third of cases.

The report suggests doing more to make sure inmates are registered are registered for Medicaid health coverage before their release, so that they are more likely to pursue treatment and that half the costs are picked up by the federal government.

Shah said New Jersey could replicate what Louisiana has done – negotiate directly with the drug manufacturer for hepatitis-C treatment to pay a flat annual rate for the expensive medication.

“I understand the federal government can’t negotiate for drug prices, but state governments and state entities sure as hell can and Louisiana has provided a quintessential example of how to do it,” Shah said.

New Jersey: Decoded cuts through the cruft and gets to what matters in New Jersey news and politics. Follow on Facebook and Twitter.

Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5 and the editor of New Jersey: Decoded. Follow @NJDecoded on Twitter and Facebook. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com

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