A recent New York Times series on conditions at New Jersey’s halfway houses caused a stir throughout the state, prompting calls for an examination of the entire system and stricter oversight. But what are the prospects are for real systemic change?
Stella Tulli still talks about her sister Viviana as if she were expecting to see her again at the end of the day. She recalls fondly a 21-year-old ball of energy who found humor in every day life. “She really didn’t have a set of rules that she lived by; she just lived,” says Tulli. But Viviana was killed two years ago. Police say her killer is David Goodell, who escaped from the hospital after faking an illness to get out of Delaney Hall, a halfway house run by a private operator.
As New Jersey’s prison population has decreased over the past decade, the population at halfway houses has skyrocketed. The New York Times reports that about 10,000 prison inmates and parolees a year make their way back into society via the halfway house system. That’s about 40 percent of the entire state prison population. It’s a big business, and in New Jersey, the big player in that business is a company called Community Education Centers (CEC).
“We have 4,000 plus employees all across the country doing a various number of programs for offenders from California to Florida, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Texas, Ohio, Wyoming and South Dakota,” says Bill Palatucci,” a CEC Senior Vice President.
Palatucci is known as Republican power player and close friend of Gov. Chris Christie. The two once worked for the same law firm and both were registered lobbyists for CEC. But CEC, which operates six of the state’s 24 halfway houses and manages 1,900 of the system’s 3,500 or so beds, has contributed to campaigns or worked with many New Jersey pols over the years, including Senators Dick Codey, Barbara Buono, Gov. Jon Corzine and many others. Over the years, CEC’s business has grown in New Jersey to the point where, of the $105 million spent on halfway houses last year, just over $70 million went to CEC. Palatucci says the halfway house system has become a critical component of the state’s effort to bring down the prison population.
Said Palatucci, “New Jersey’s prison population, including those who are in “community” in 1999 was 31,000 individuals, 31,000 offenders. Today, that number is below 24,000, including prison and community programs. Best in the country.”
But the system has come under increased scrutiny, beginning last year when an audit by the state comptroller found problems with management and security, and then in June, the damaging series in the New York Times, which chronicled a system racked by violence, gangs, drug abuse and escapes. The report caused an immediate review of the system, which is ongoing, and caused Assemblyman Charles Mainor, the chair of the Assembly Public Safety Committee, to call for hearings into the matter.
“There have been parents who called and said that everything in the paper is true because their child had experienced it,” said Mainor. “But again, I’ll look at everything for what it is and at the end of it all we’ll have a discussion, a roundtable discussion and we’ll make some recommendations to make the system better.”
Mainor, an ex-cop who’s seen the system up close, would seem like a perfect person to look into some of its shortcomings. He says he’s not looking to place blame; he’s more interested in getting to the root of the problem.
David Cruz files the first of his two-part report.