New Jersey continues to incarcerate African Americans and Latinos at far greater rates than whites.
New Jersey lawmakers are continuing to pursue prison reform, most recently by advancing measures that would make it easier for nonviolent offenders to be paroled, give all returning citizens re-entry plans and make college classes more affordable to those in prison.
The state has already implemented a number of criminal-justice and prison reforms in recent years, including the virtual elimination of cash bail and shortening of the expungement process. Four months ago, Gov. Phil Murphy signed legislation putting limits on the use of solitary confinement in correctional facilities.
Financial aid for college
The other measure passed by the committee (A-3722) would permit currently incarcerated peoples to receive state financial aid to enable them to take college courses offered behind bars. Currently, a state law prohibits currently incarcerated people from receiving either state grants or scholarships, most notably Tuition Assistance Grants for those of low income.
College courses are offered in seven of New Jersey’s correctional facilities through the New Jersey Scholarship and Transformative Education in Prisons Consortium, or NJ-STEP. According to the NJ-STEP website, Drew University, Princeton University, Raritan Valley Community College and Rutgers University currently offer instruction. In past years, about 550 incarcerated students were enrolled.
NJ-STEP is funded largely by nonprofit foundations, while some students also get federal aid in the form of Second Chance Pell Grants, a pilot program the Obama administration began in 2016. Rutgers University-Newark provides most of the funding to administer the program. More courses could be offered if a more stable form of funding were available.
According to Sen. Sandra Cunningham (D-Hudson), who has championed the measure in the Senate, studies show that every $1 invested in correctional education programs resulted in as much as a $5 dollar reduction in state incarceration costs during the first three years of a person’s release.
By Colleen O’Dea