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Americans of good will are eager to purge the racism from our criminal justice system, starting with a fight against police brutality and mass incarceration. George Floyd’s slow and agonizing death has created a moment in history, a rare chance to right those enormous wrongs.
But the state Legislature, along with Gov. Phil Murphy, is about to march us in the wrong direction on another critical piece of this fight -- helping ex-prisoners get back on their feet when they are finally released, often with nothing to their name but a raging drug addiction and a bus ticket home.
On Monday, the Legislature is almost certain to approve an emergency budget that cuts all funding for prisoner re-entry programs, including the one run by Jim McGreevey, the former governor. The program is beyond cheap, less than $2 million in this three-month budget, a penny when measured against the fortune we spend on police and prisons.
With his tiny treasury, McGreevey operates eight centers that serve about 1,000 people each, helping them where they need it most – emergency housing, job placement, drug treatment, even a pat on the back. When shelters closed during the pandemic, he found them space to line up cots in empty restaurants and church basements.
“This is the back end of criminal justice reform,” McGreevey says. “If we look at all we spend on jails and prisons, it’s insane. But when they’re released it’s a far distant afterthought. And it lands almost all on people who are black or persons of color. Walk through our prisons. It’s all people of color.”
Ok, not all, but close. New Jersey prisons have the nation’s widest racial disparity, with blacks imprisoned at 12 times the rate of whites.
I get it, the economic catastrophe we face requires brutal spending cuts, and the governor and legislative leaders have agreed to say “no” across the board to non-profits like McGreevey’s. A center that helps teen victims of sexual abuse in Newark, Wynona’s House, is losing all its funding, too. So is a statewide group, CASA, that helps foster kids find permanent homes.
Even McGreevey is not complaining much. This blow will deprive him of funding for three months, the duration of this emergency budget. The bigger fight will come in September, when a budget is passed to cover the remaining 9 months of the fiscal year. Murphy’s team and top legislators tell him they hope to restore funding then, but they can offer no assurance.
“We have a good working relationship with the governor’s team,” McGreevey says.
I’m rooting for a rebellion on the floor when the Legislature considers this emergency budget Monday, unlikely as that is. The moment demands that we back up our talk about racial justice by at least sustaining the effort to help these ex-prisoners during this crisis. If that means a handful of other non-profits have to get funding to make a deal work, then so be it.
The non-profit sector is cheap. At the good ones like McGreevey’s, the New Jersey Re-entry Corporation, staffers driven by the mission work long hours for low pay. The added costs can be covered with tiny cuts to state operations, like expanding the furlough of state workers.
On Tuesday, McGreevey held a pep rally in the parking lot of his new center in Newark, with speakers that included the governor, the Rev. Al Sharpton, and an African-American woman, Rashida Smith, who got help from McGreevey after spending 16 years behind bars.
“I love you from the bottom of my heart for saving my life,” she told McGreevey. “This place opened so many doors for me.”
Hers is the classic story of redemption. She was a drug addict, dealing and robbing to get by, until one day she was arrested for robbery and manslaughter after her companion shot and killed the target of their robbery, a day that haunts her still. She was 18 and had one-year-old son.
When she was released after 16 years, she was a different person, determined to get a job and help her son, who had dropped out of high school. But it was tough going, and a low point came after she was fired when her boss learned of her criminal record.
“That was devastating,” she says now, at age 43. “I had other doors close to me but that particular one took all hope from me."
McGreevey drew her in, helping her land a job at PSE&G, and then a better job at Jingoli & Son Inc. for $18 an hour, which later rose to $25 an hour. “That was my life-saving break,” Smith says. “They loved me, and they wanted to give me a shot.”
McGreevey’s people weren’t done. They called her out of the blue years later and helped her enroll in a program that helps women run their own businesses, and she’s now partnering with her fiancée to expand his construction demolition firm.
“Four years later, they still didn’t forget about me,” Smith says. “They wanted me to succeed. That’s the awesome thing they did for me. They came back.”
Assemblywoman Eliana Pintor-Marin, D-Essex, chair of the budget committee, is a big supporter of re-entry programs who sounds agonized about the plan to cut off McGreevey’s funding now, and determined to restore it in September. Without money then, McGreevey says he’ll have to close his Paterson center and tell its 1,200 clients to fend for themselves, for starters.
“It’s so incredibly difficult because I truly believe in this,” Pintor-Marin says. “A few of these programs, and re-entry is one, we’ll really have to take a closer look. This is not the right time. I really think we need to consider funding a program like this. I hope to. I sure hope to.”
Me too. If they cripple a program like this, then their righteous talk about supporting the Black Lives Matter movement is just that -- talk.