This is the first segment of a series examining the re-entry of New Jersey prisoners into mainstream society upon release, and the services to help reduce the number of individuals who re-offend and return to prison. On Thursday, Feb. 20 at 7 p.m., New Jersey 101.5 will broadcast a special town hall with a live discussion and simulcast at

About 8,000 inmates are released yearly from New Jersey's prisons. More than 2,000 of these individuals are likely to end up back behind bars within a few years of their release.

That's actually a good number, compared to recidivism rates elsewhere.

"We've been hovering around 30% when the national average is about 50," said state Department of Corrections Commissioner Marcus Hicks.

Efforts in New Jersey to break the cycle of re-offending, with the mindset that recidivism translates into a more dangerous society and more dollars wasted on incarceration, begin well before a convict reenters the real world following time served.

"We believe that reentry actually starts when the individual hits our front door," Hicks said. "As part of that assessment, we find out what their needs are."

Those needs could include a certain level of education, or treatment to tackle serious issues related to mental health and/or drug use. About 30% of the individuals who enter a New Jersey prison are dealing with some form of substance use disorder, Hicks said.

Depending on the case, one's care regimen for kicking a drug habit could include medication-assisted treatment — described by Hicks as the "gold standard across the country." About 2,500 inmates have been on MAT since the department introduced the approach into its facilities.

In September 2019, the Murphy Administration announced an $8 million investment to help county jails with their population dealing with substance use issues. The initiative focuses on the use of MAT for opioid addiction.

One of the department's newer programs, Hicks said, delivers "peer support" into the prisons. Individuals certified in recovery come in and work with inmates six months prior to their release.

"And then they'll stay with them a year after their release," Hicks said.

Education and vocation

Under an incentive program launched earlier this year, eligible incarcerated individuals have the opportunity to shave time off their sentence by participating in any number of credit-bearing courses offered on the inside. One credit amounts to one less day behind bars, applied to one's maximum release date, not the date of their parole eligibility.

Eligible courses, running the gamut from culinary arts to welding, are meant to develop a pool of job-ready candidates.

While the credit incentive is new, vocational training inside the prisons has long been a staple of preparing inmates for success on the outside.

"Last year we had 7,000 certifications of completion on our Career Technical Education programs," Hicks said.

Hundreds more over that time received a high school equivalency diploma, and 600 individuals enrolled in post-secondary courses — the DOC partners with Raritan Valley Community College, Rutgers and Princeton. There are commencement ceremonies for those who earn degrees; they take place inside the prisons.

What's in it for everyone else?

The DOC's goal is to protect the public, Hicks said — that's done through operating safe, secure, humane corrections facilities, and through rehabilitating individuals who are willing to accept help.

"We have to prepare people, because most of them are coming out," Hicks said. "Investing in rehabilitation — by doing that we are making all of us safer."

Hicks said New Jersey's lower-than-most recidivism rate is a testament to the programs offered here, both in and out of prison.

"There's a shared commitment to rehabilitation and breaking the cycle of incarceration, and when we do that the prison population drops, and then when that happens, then there's other opportunities to realize savings, such as consolidation," he said.

With the closure of Albert C. Wagner Youth Correctional Facility in Bordendown late last year, hundreds of offenders were transferred to neighboring Garden State Youth Correctional Facility. The consolidation was estimated to achieve a savings of about $13 million in fiscal year 2020.

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