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Congress Takes First Step While New Jersey Is Miles Ahead

As the partisan feuding continues and the partial federal government shutdown has become the longest in our nation’s history, one rare bipartisan bright spot was the recent passing of the FIRST STEP Act. For the more than 200,000 individuals incarcerated in federal prison, the “Formerly Incarcerated Reenter Society Transformed Safely and Transitioning Every Person” (FIRST STEP) Act mandates implementation of evidence-based practices by requiring the use of needs assessments and targeted treatment interventions.

The FIRST STEP Act creates a system within the Federal Bureau of Prisons intended to provide those incarcerated with programs, education and skills that will help them re-enter their communities after they have served their sentence. The goal is simple – reduce recidivism and the opportunity for the previously convicted to reoffend. While the new federal legislation may be a FIRST STEP for the feds, New Jersey has been implementing evidence-based practices for more than twenty years with tremendous success.

Since the explosion of New Jersey’s prison population in the 1980s and 90s and culminating at its height in 1999 with more than 31,493 housed in prison, New Jersey has taken a leadership role in reform efforts, implementing research and scientific needs assessment and evidence-based treatment interventions. These reforms led to the establishment of new programs to better manage the transition home for thousands of formerly incarcerated individuals, lowered crime in the state and have reduced the number of individuals reentering prison. Through these efforts, mass incarceration has dropped nearly 40 percent in the state .

New Jersey took an additional step with the implementation of bail reform in 2016 in order to reduce the incarceration of poor people, reduce our dependence on a cash bail system and allow judges to remand dangerous individuals without bail. With that step, the New Jersey jail population has declined by 20 percent, and individuals incarcerated awaiting trial was reduced by 35 percent . In New Jersey, these steps have led to a significant drop in crime – rates of homicide, robbery and burglary have all gone down by more than 30 percent during the same period .

New Jersey must continue to be a national leader in criminal justice reform. With an average cost of $61,603 per individual housed in prison, New Jersey can continue to find real budget savings through additional reforms by reducing societal barriers and contributing factors that may lead individuals to crime.

New Jersey should continue its efforts to expand voluntary reentry programs in all 21 counties that offer a holistic approach – job training, housing assistance, mental health services, addiction treatment and comprehensive case management services – as found with the Safe Return Program managed by Volunteers of America Delaware Valley. The state should also implement the recommendations put forth by the New Jersey Supreme Court Committee on Municipal Court Operations, Fines and Fees to address inconsistencies and abuses by municipal courts that disproportionately impact the poor and minorities, leading to a revolving door of individuals entering the criminal justice system.

New Jersey’s continued attention to reform efforts will ultimately help individuals attain successful integration – helping to break the onerous cycle of crime and continued incarceration. While our federal government embarks on a new era in this arena, New Jersey as an advocate for this cause must continue to stay at the forefront, serving as an example of best practices and creative legislative approaches to address those returning to society from the criminal justice system.

Daniel L. Lombardo has been President/CEO of Volunteers of America Delaware Valley, Inc. since 1988. He has a broad array of experience in human services; management; program assessment and development; and budget planning and development. Lombardo was appointed by the Governor of New Jersey to the first-ever New Jersey Sentencing Policy Study Commission; was appointed by the Mayor of Philadelphia to a mayoral Task Force on Management and Productivity; and was chosen by the Governor of New Jersey to serve as a member of the New Jersey Family Development Advisory Board and the New Jersey Parole Advisory Board. He was subsequently elected Chairman of the New Jersey Parole Advisory Board. Dan also has served as a N.J. gubernatorial appointee to the Asset Monitorization Task Force; the NJ Corrections Government Efficiency and Reform (GEAR) Commission; and the selection task force for the NJ Commissioner of Corrections. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the International Corrections & Prisons Association (ICPA) and serves at its Vice-Chair for North America. He has been active with numerous professional and community organizations and has served in a number of public policy capacities in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Lombardo has been the recipient of numerous awards for his work in human services and community corrections and has written numerous articles about these and related subjects. He currently resides in Camden County, NJ.