Conference Celebrates Successes, Challenges of Re-entry Efforts

By David Cruz

Former Gov. Jim McGreevey knows a little something about comebacks. It took him a decade to recover from his public indiscretions but since his reemergence a couple of years ago, his focus has been on helping others come back from their own personal challenges. As the executive director of the Jersey City Employment and Training Corporation and a network of related organizations, McGreevey has been helping to create opportunities for ex-offenders.

“The sad reality is that, nationally, 68 percent of people coming out of prison are back in prison within three to five years and our rate is under 20 percent and I think it’s because we provide real, meaningful services that enable people to change their lives,” he said.

With over 800 in attendance at the third prisoner re-entry conference, a wide cross section of people involved in the criminal justice process, from prosecutors to former prisoners, shared their stories, like Nyreek Scott who found work — and redemption — after doing time.

“Nyreek 10 years ago didn’t listen,” he recalled. “He didn’t really care about much, but now he’s willing to actually accept people’s help, ego’s not in the way. He’s a man now.”

Panel discussions throughout the day included elected officials and judges who have started drug courts and aggressive re-entry programs, leading to other success stories like Dawn Weniger, whose biggest success may be have been losing her job and not reverting to substance abuse.

“I always am optimistic. My motto in life is your outlook will predict your outcome,” she said. “I would say probably 24 times I’ve been rejected in the last six months from job opportunities. I was at the offer process and as soon as I disclosed my past [I was rejected] but I didn’t let it break me because if I break, if I give up, then opportunities like this wouldn’t — I’d be home, sitting on the couch, depressed and I refuse to do that.”

While acknowledging that New Jersey has been a leader in many aspects of re-entry efforts, participants also admitted that there is still a long road to travel and called for more help from lawmakers. Newark’s Ras Baraka called for shorter sentences, coupled with intense supervision after prison.

“In order to do this, you need a lot of resources and you need a lot of support and commitment not only from the public sector but from the private sector and the philanthropic sector as well,” he suggested.

Today’s conference proved that it is possible to overcome the stigma of a criminal past but so long as successes are still outnumbered by recidivists, there is much more work to do.