TRENTON – The Department of Corrections and State Parole Board officials testified before the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee Wednesday, with early inmate release issues at hand.
The DOC is an expensive, vital sector of state government with a $1.15 billion proposed budget, reduced by 1.7 percent from last year.
DOC Commissioner Gary Lanigan is dealing with prison overpopulation, but said stacked bunks for inmates are working “without a hitch.”
In January 2011, the state and county inmate count was 24,670 – reduced by 1.9 percent over last year – but operating at about 137 percent of their capacity, according to an Office of Legislative Services report.
“How much money in the budget for infrastructure?” asked Chairman Paul Sarlo, (D-36), of Wood-Ridge. Nothing, Lanigan said, although the prison population is expected to drop again in the coming year.
With the population drop and the reduction in funding, state Sen. Sandra Cunningham, (D-31), of Jersey City, asked if the department expected to shutter any prisons next year.
“We do not plan to close any facilities right now,” Lanigan said, although some inmate housing facilities are being cycled out of use for renovation, but then put back online.
The discussion turned, at times, to the well-publicized early inmate release program that turned up two alleged killers after they were bounced from jail.
“How many inmates have been released under this program since the statute has been enacted?” Sarlo asked.
Lanigan said 317 inmates were excused from their sentences under the program since January when it was enacted. Of those, 11 were subsequently arrested and six more have warrants out for their arrest, he said.
Given recidivism rates, Sarlo asked how many would have been expected to be re-arrested, but Lanigan didn’t have the data in front of him.
In addition, 38 of the 317 released inmates never hit the street, he said, because they were detained by other law enforcement agencies while still in custody.
Cunningham brought up an example from Jersey City of a released inmate allegedly killing once sprung.
She heard the man was running afoul of parole officers, which Parole Board Chairman James Plousis denied.
“As you know everything is risk-assessed here,” Plousis said, whose board handles 16,000–plus parolees statewide. “He came up low on the risk assessment.”
But the officials did say that the early release program has eaten away at the release controls gained by granting parole.
“We have people who know that they’re getting out,” Lanigan said, and they are not interested in cooperating with the Parole Board.
“The system has worked for over 40 years,” he said. “We’ve dismantled that system.”
State Sen. Jeff Van Drew, (D-1), of Cape May, asked about the previously existing early release eligibility program, a 1969 law which may need legislative tweaking to ensure violent criminals serve at least 85 percent of their sentence.
Of the more than 2,700 inmates who applied, Lanigan said, 47 were eligible, but only 14 were deemed appropriate and placed in a community release center.
Among the 317 released inmates were weapons arrests, manslaughter cases, sex offenders, and kidnapping charges.
Republican state Sen. Steve Oroho, (R-24), of Franklin Township, who is among the GOP faithful who’ve been pressing hard for movement on the issue, asked Lanigan, “Short of legislation, is there anything you can do to stop this from happening?”
“Not that I can do.”
“So the Legislature must act to change it?” Oroho led him.
“Yes, if the desire is to change it,” Lanigan replied.
Oroho finished, “I hope the Legislature does move in getting that remedied, A.S.A.P.”