Former New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey told a gathering of National Council of Jewish Women members May 17 that the “criminal industrial complex” is largely to blame for making the United States the nation with the highest prison population in the world.
Speaking before a “lunch and learn” session of NCJW’s Essex County Section at the Livingston Community Center, McGreevey cited statistics that show that although the United States has five percent of the world’s population, 25 percent of the world’s inmates are incarcerated in American jails and prisons.
He said such statistics mean that the country imprisons “more black Americans than South Africa did at the height of its white supremacist apartheid regime. We are spending $74 billion annually on incarceration” in the United States. The state of New York, he said, “spent more money on keeping more adult males behind bars than it did on higher public education…,” he continued. “That has an impact on whether you are going to finance pre-kindergarten and early childhood literacy…,” and the effects are dire. “The single greatest detriment to not recidivating is education.”
McGreevey, a Democrat who served as governor from 2002 until his resignation in 2004, has worked since 2013 as executive director of the Jersey City Employment & Training Program, which aids released offenders in job training, education, and in coping with substance abuse problems.
He described America’s penal system as “sad. If you were to envision a system that arguably is in place to meliorate the bad behavior of persons it would be difficult to think of a worse solution than what we’ve achieved.”
Part of the blame, he said, was the privatization of American prisons. Given their focus on making profits, “clearly they have economic interest in maintaining the status quo. I would argue it has a long-term negative impact.”
Pacing in front of his lunchroom audience of 150 women, McGreevey spoke with passion about a young woman named Ashley who, he said, represented the case histories of thousands of young people ensnared into dangerous and painful lives involving drugs and crime.
Ashley grew up in a Camden housing project and “all she saw was running and gunning…. She was raped six times by the time she was 14, and her mother told her to ‘buck up and get back out there and sell drugs to pay for the electric bill.’ Life is harsh. Life is brutal. You could almost think that life isn’t worth living,” he said.
Like many young people he has worked with, McGreevey said, Ashley eventually “made a rational decision to join a gang for survival.”
Although she did not become a violent criminal, she was sentenced to seven years in prison as an accomplice, “and her two children, who are now in Camden, begin to repeat the cycle all over again…. We are doing the same bloody thing year in, year out, and miraculously expecting different results.”
McGreevey asked his audience rhetorically, “Why would you take that person and put them in an institution where the worst maladaptive behavior is acquiesced to — a prison?”
He said few states provide drug and alcohol treatment for offenders. “Nationally only 11 percent of the people who are addicts and alcoholics get treatment. Seventy percent of the people behind bars today are addicts.”
He said it just “makes sense” to address inmates’ substance abuse issues “because if a person simply goes through prison and doesn’t address the basic reason for their addiction, what have we accomplished?”
McGreevey said ex-offender programs he has worked with in such places as Newark, Paterson, Toms River, and Jersey City “have changed lives and changed behaviors” by providing addiction treatment, housing in drug- and alcohol-free environments, employment, education, and connection with health care. And they have managed to find jobs for 55 percent of them. “Why? Because it is about changing behavior and holding them responsible — but yes, giving them opportunity,” he said.
The success of these programs has reduced recidivism rates in New Jersey to 19.2 percent, McGreevey said, one of the lowest in the nation. Nationally, the rate “hovers between 66 and 69 percent. If you and I were running a deli, and two-thirds of the people got sick, we would be out of business.
“We are reaping the results of bad policy,” he said, “and America can do better, not only for the sake of the nation but for every child and young person we lose.”