Amidst the partisan rancor focused on by our national media, New Jersey has an opportunity to demonstrate substantive and even transformational bipartisanship. Newark, New Jersey, leads the nation in reducing gun violence with a 50% decrease in shootings over the last three years. This has come about by bringing together policy institutes, political leaders, activists and philanthropists from both sides of the political aisle. It has come about because we focused on data not rhetoric, pragmatism not politics. This coalition in Newark has included both Chris Christie in his position as US Attorney and Jon Corzine as our Governor. I believe we can now create a greater statewide coalition that can both reduce crime and the burden on taxpayers.
New Jersey is being crushed under the cost of capturing, adjudicating and imprisoning the same criminals again and again - a large portion of which are non-violent drug offenders. In towns, it is no different: the largest expenditure of Newark’s budget is for public safety. Over the last ten years, the Department of Corrections budget has increased by 36% to a staggering $1.2 billion (this does not include the increased expenditures in city and county jails). It costs $48,000 per inmate per year and when we release them 62% of inmates become repeat offenders within three years. As we confront the state budget crisis, we must fix a system otherwise doomed to spiral out of control, with taxpayers spending billions to fund the cycle of re-arrest and re-imprisonment.
In Newark we realized that we could not address crime's many costs to society with improved policing alone. We had to stop this vicious cycle. The most effective way to do this was to help ex-offenders so that they could reenter society with hope and pathways to productivity.
To achieve this we formed a significant right-left coalition of groups -- from the Manhattan Institute to the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, from the Nicholson Foundation to Public/Private Ventures -- to launch the Newark Prisoner Reentry Initiative, an unprecedented, federal Labor Department-funded effort to address reentry on a citywide scale.
NPRI participants are assisted in their job search and provided with mentoring and training by community organizations. So far, NPRI has served more than 600 formerly incarcerated individuals and pushed participants' one-year recidivism rate below 10%. Our reentry efforts serve hundreds more with our partners across the community. Essex County College hosts the innovative Opportunity Reconnect network of services. ReLeSe, a pro bono corps of lawyers dedicated to assisting individuals with criminal records, developed an innovative driver’s license restoration program. And the Fatherhood Center helps formerly incarcerated fathers become stronger parents and engaged citizens. Our program is early in its development. Yet it’s already clear that reductions in the recidivism rate will result in millions of dollars in savings to New Jersey taxpayers.
The package of prisoner reentry bills currently pending in the legislature provides a path toward similar solutions statewide and will greatly strengthen our on the ground efforts in Newark. These bills, introduced by Assembly Majority Leader Bonnie Watson-Coleman, contain an array of measures proven to reduce recidivism, including provisions to eliminate barriers to employment for people with criminal records, establish a high school equivalency program for inmates, and provide inmates with necessary documentation (such as ID) to facilitate a successful transition back into the community. The bills are driven by evidence of what works and reflect the growing bipartisan understanding of how we can lower costs and help reclaim lives.
Some are quick to point out that certain provisions of the state bills would cost money at a time of tremendous fiscal strain – adding millions to the state budget in the near term. Many of these people are using this understandable concern to reflexively oppose this legislation.
However, the cost of doing nothing simply leaves the tremendous expense of arrest, adjudication and incarceration to fester and grow larger and more burdensome in coming years. We cannot be penny-wise and pound-foolish. The time to act is now. If implemented effectively, the bills not only have the ability to pay for themselves but can provide significant savings to taxpayers in future budget years. This is not fantasy or fiction; the proof can be seen in the active bipartisan success so evident in Newark right now.
-Mayor Cory A. Booker
Mayor Cory A Booker is the mayor of Newark, New Jersey.