CAMDEN —More than half of New Jersey’s adult offenders are re-arrested after their release, according to the state Department of Corrections, and many are likely to commit crimes again within nine months of leaving prison.
To help reduce New Jersey’s high rate of recidivism, Rutgers–Camden’s Walter Rand Institute for Public Affairs and Opportunity Reconnect–Camden are working to break down the barriers offenders face during their reintegration into society.
Since its establishment in March 2010 on Federal Street, Opportunity Reconnect–Camden has served 1,902 ex-offenders.
The reentry center assesses the specific needs of the clients and makes appropriate referrals to partnering service providers to address those needs. While some services are located on-site, most are referred to off-site service providers.
Those services include assistance in utilizing the resources of the Camden County One-Stop Career Center, Camden County Board of Social Services, Camden County College, as well as referrals for medical care, identification, and driver’s license restoration.
Opportunity Reconnect–Camden also has a computer lab where clients are assisted in creating email accounts, resumes, and on-line job searches. The 11 computers were donated to Opportunity Reconnect by Rutgers–Camden.
In more than two years, Opportunity Reconnect has had more than 8,800 unique visits from repeat and first-time clients.
“We have a track record now of identifying the various needs of the reentry population, and how best to address those needs,” says Joseph Cassisi, a program coordinator at the Rand Institute and director of Opportunity Reconnect. “We continue to identify gaps in the delivery of service to ex-offenders and we’ve helped to develop strategies to address those gaps.
One example of identifying a service need was providing female ex-offenders with suitable clothes for their job searches and first days of employment. Dress for Success Philadelphia, a nonprofit organization, agreed to assist to fill this gap and now offers weekly assistance at the center for women actively seeking employment.
“You can bring someone in that quite possibly could have continued to walk by your door and you can start them at the ground floor and build them up to where their comfortable in their job search,” says Bryan Morton, a project coordinator at Opportunity Reconnect. “They’ve all made great strides in functioning as a productive citizen,” Morton says.
As Opportunity Reconnect successfully aids ex-offenders in rejoining society, the Rand Institute is taking on a key role in establishing the Camden County Comprehensive Adult Reentry Plan.
According to the New Jersey Department of Corrections, Camden County has the second highest percentage of offenders committed to state correctional institutions. As a result, Camden County’s population of ex-offenders remains high.
“Camden County is expected to have, per capita, more ex-offenders returning to it than any other county in the state,” says Gwendolyn Harris, executive director of the Rand Institute at Rutgers–Camden. “That’s what makes the need for a reentry plan so very critical.”
Earlier this year, the Rand Institute staff presented an overview of its Comprehensive Strategic Reentry Plan to the Governor’s Task Force on Recidivism Reduction.
Announced by Gov. Chris Christie last November, the task force is an initiative to help even more offenders get the support they need to successfully re-enter society, break the cycle of criminality, and lead productive lives.
The Rand Institute’s job is to establish a re-entry plan with the Governor’s task force, which is co-chaired by a representative from the New Jersey State Parole Board and the governor’s office. Stakeholders representing city and county government and faith-based and social service organizations are also involved with establishing the plan.
“We want to enhance a comprehensive system of reentry care,” says Tracy Swan-Grova, a senior project coordinator for the Rand Institute. “The Governor’s Task Force on Recidivism Reduction has been working since last year to research what’s going on in terms of recidivism on both the juvenile and adult levels, and what can be done to reduce it. They’ve already achieved a lot of work in the field.”
The Comprehensive Adult Reentry Plan includes strategies to help ex-offenders with employment, education, housing, family reunification, legal issues, and health and wellness.
“There is not a strategy in Camden County right now to employ ex-offenders,” Cassis says. “Housing and education are other major issues. We need to focus on these needs.”
Cassisi says the goal of the Camden County Comprehensive Adult Reentry Plan is a 50 percent reduction in recidivism over the next five years.
Harris says the plan will be presented to city and county officials in the fall.
For more information about Rutgers–Camden news stories, visit us at news.rutgers.edu/medrel
Media Contact: Ed Moorhouse