Discussing Ways to Help Ex-Offenders

By Brenda Flanagan

“It takes all your hope away from you, after you come out of prison. But I was very lucky,” said Mike Tyson.

Former boxer and ex-offender Tyson joined Gov. Chris Christie and former Gov. Jim McGreevey, providing the star power at the fourth annual Prisoner Reentry Conference in Jersey City. Tyson presented the governor with a championship belt and kudos for Christie’s work in helping former inmates rejoin society.

“They’ve paid their debt. Now what’s left for their life? Where’s the hope?” Christie asked.

The conference explored multiple pitfalls confronting ex-offenders in a nation that accounts for 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated population.

“People in prison come home with the high hopes of doing the right thing. There’s not a lot of people that come home determined to go right back into criminality,” said Tracey Syphax.

Syphax told the audience he’s a former addict who now runs a successful business. He hires ex-offenders.

“But when you can’t provide that opportunity for them, next thing you know, two months later you see them on that same corner. That is heartbreaking,” he said.

New Jersey’s rate of recidivism dropped to 32 percent in 2014, according to The Sentencing Project. Former inmates often lack the most basic necessities.

“It’s scary because I’m 52 years old,” said Warren Trauger.

And Trauger spent 20 of those years behind bars. He’s got no family, no home, no job, not even a driver’s license — just a prison ID.

“I’m looking for full-time work now, as they spoke about the motor vehicle. I owe $4,000. I have to get my license back,” he said.

Inmates struggling to pay overdue motor vehicle fines can follow the example of the New Jersey Reentry Corporation, which found an innovative way to let inmates pay with time served.

“You can make a showing to a municipal court or as it were a superior court judge that you can’t pay and the judge has the option to forgive that fine and he or she can actually credit that at $50 a day,” said New Jersey Reentry Corporation Executive Director John Koufos.

Lawmakers are still working out details to reform New Jersey’s expungement law that would clear violent crimes from ex-offenders’ records and help them get jobs. What they also need, according to activist Al Sharpton, is respect.

“We cannot have a civilized society if we cannot give people an opportunity to in many ways correct their behavior and re-enter life,” he said.

Officials pledged to address the multiple problems confronting ex-offenders but admitted the biggest obstacle is still the stigma and that society’s attitude toward re-entry needs to evolve.