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Advocacy for Mentally Ill Offenders

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For nearly a decade, human rights advocates have been pushing for legislation addressing the high costs of the prison system. According to Assemblyman Albert Coutinho of the 29th Legislative District of New Jersey, more taxes are allocated to the prison system than education in this country. Running these facilities costs over 100 billion dollars each year, making the U.S. prison system the 39th largest economy in the world. So what causes the prison system to be such an expensive burden? For many urban environments where crime is most prevalent, three significant factors include - unstable homes and communities, failing schools, and a lack of economic opportunity. Nearly 95 percent of inmates are transitioned back into society, yet the rate of re-arrest of these former prisoners or recidivism is approximately 67 percent. The cost to keep one inmate in prison per year is $37,000. New legislation being introduced in New Jersey (A2902) would result in a fiscal and humanitarian change in our prison system. One of the major parts of the bill addresses the rehabilitation and assimilation of inmates back into their communities. While the average inmate has an education level of a 6th grade student, completion of vocational training reduces the individual’s recidivism rate to 27 percent. In addition, some of the inmates in the system have mental disorders, either developed before or while serving their sentences. The goal of this reform is to reduce recidivism. Most inmates who are mentally ill are not receiving treatment. This is partially due to the stigma attached to being labeled mentally ill. Another problem arises in the case of dependency issues, also considered a mental illness. Sponsors of legislative action call for more services such as counseling and education opportunities, as well as proper documentation (birth certificate, Social Security cards, identification, etc) upon release. In the past, NJ Legislative Bill A2902, which would have established an advocacy pilot program for mentally ill offenders, was shot down. Because of the budget cutbacks in the State of New Jersey, many opponents, including the governor, are reluctant to endorse this new legislation because of the fiscal impact attached to its adoption. What can be concluded about the issue of the prison systems today? New Jersey Government is spending way too much of its resources in expenses rather than investments. A pilot program, if successful, would alleviate some of the stress placed on the prison system. By integrating criminal offenders back into society as taxpayers rather than tax consumers, less finances would be consumed by the system and more would be contributed to the State. In New Jersey, Governor Christie has eliminated many programs involving health and human resources within the community. For more information or to show your support for Legislative Bill A2902, please help petition for the passing of this legislative bill.

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