Program Areas

Criminal Justice & Offender Re-entry

Incarceration is one of the largest items in New Jersey’s budget, disproportionately due to crime and violence endemic to urban areas such as of Newark and other troubled Essex communities.  The Essex County Department of Corrections moved into a new, $416-million facility for 2,300 inmates in the spring of 2004.  In combination with nearby private facilities, the jail was expected to meet the County’s incarceration needs for decades to come, but by the fall of 2006 it was already overcrowded, due to a crackdown on crime in Newark and other communities.  That a high-cost, new facility proved inadequate so quickly is a telling indicator of the challenges faced by Essex County’s criminal-justice delivery system.

Over one-third of the 70,000 offenders projected to be released from New Jersey prisons between 2003 and 2008 will return to Essex County; one-third of those will return to Newark, where one of six adults is a convicted felon.  In the face of these pressures, County, State and Federal officials and community advocates have joined together to find ways to increase public safety in New Jersey, reduce crime, and break the cycle of recidivism for its citizens.  As a member of this coalition, The Nicholson Foundation is actively supporting a number of initiatives in Essex County to improve the successful reintegration of offenders as they transition from detention to the County’s communities.


Female Offender Resource Group of Essex (FORGE)
New Jersey has one of the highest rates of incarcerated women in the country—5.32% of the total prison population.  Compared to their male counterparts, females have more trouble with successful reentry because they are younger, have minimal or no work history, and are more likely to be victims of abuse, be diagnosed with mental illness, and be the primary, if not only, parent of young children.  These characteristics increase the likelihood that they will be dependent on government entitlements and social services following their detention.

To improve the post-release outcomes for incarcerated women, the New Jersey State Parole Board and State Corrections, in collaboration with the Center for Mental Health Services and Criminal Justice Research, with funding and technical assistance from The Nicholson Foundation, have developed the Female Offender Resource Group of Essex (FORGE).  Forge is a reentry program for women being released to Essex County from the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility, where more than 1000 women are incarcerated.  FORGE provides holistic case management services including coordinating access to, and integration of, all appropriate government and social services to assist the female ex-offenders and their families as the women return to Essex County’s neighborhoods.

One of two FORGE part-time Resource Specialists, who are funded by The Nicholson Foundation, collaborates with the ex-offenders’ parole officers to help the women secure the documentation (e.g., a non-driver photo identification card, birth certificate and Social Security card) needed to qualify for the services critical to their successful reintegration.  The FORGE team helps each ex-offender apply for and obtain the entitlements for which she qualifies, including Supplemental Security Income benefits, temporary financial assistance, housing, and medical insurance to pay for essential medical, mental health and substance abuse treatment.  Education, mentoring, job training and placement services are important additional components of the program.  The Resource Specialists also help the women reunite with their children, working with them to develop and implement a family reunification plan.  When appropriate, these women are referred to the Nicholson-supported North Ward Family Group Conferencing Program, which provides a venue for their families and child-welfare social workers to collaborate on the plans.

As of November 2006, only 17—just 9.4%—of the 160 female ex-offenders (70% of whom had been jailed for violent offenses) who participated in FORGE over the last two years had returned to prison.  (Entry dated fall 2006)


The Next Step Program
Essex County Community College, in collaboration with the New Jersey State Parole Board, with The Nicholson Foundation as funder, has developed the Next Step Program, an educational opportunity program for ex-offenders who are interested in pursuing a college degree.  The participants, many of whom are still living in State Correction’s halfway houses, receive intensive support services to help them adjust to reentry and the demands of college life.  Housed on the college campus, Next Step provides developmental and college level courses, computer and math clinics, twelve-step meetings, job search assistance, academic counseling, life skills classes, aid with housing and welfare issues, help in applying for financial aid, and funding for books and other incidental expenses.  Thirty-three individuals participated in the program during the fall and spring of the 2005/2006 academic year.  Their average GPA was 2.84; 45% worked while attending college; 90% remained drug-free; and 93% remained in good standing with the New Jersey Department of Corrections.  Next Step has enabled its participants to develop a sense of pride and self-worth as they begin a college career, and many are able, for the first time, to envision a future outside the criminal justice system.  (Entry dated fall 2006)


Opportunity Reconnect
The largely young and male population in New Jersey prisons leaves many families and their communities with a dearth of primary wage earners.  When ex-offenders face unemployment and lack critical supports upon release, recidivism increases and families and communities continue to suffer.  Opportunity Reconnect was recently developed by a partnership of the Newark Mayor’s Office, the New Jersey State Parole Board, the County of Essex Welfare Division, Essex County Community College, Newark’s Welfare and Health and Housing Departments, the Newark Workforce Investment Board, the New Jersey Department of Labor, the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, and community and faith-based organizations, with Nicholson Foundation technical assistance and funding.

Opportunity Reconnect provides ex-offenders in Essex County integrated reentry services that simplify access to needed programs and supports.  On-site government staff and community service providers work collaboratively at a One-Stop center located at Essex County Community College.  The program begins pre-release when ex-offenders are helped to identify the services and supports needed to transition to productive, healthy lifestyles when they return to their neighborhoods.  Upon release, the program assists them in accessing these services, including entitlements like food stamps, substance-abuse, medical and mental health treatment, housing assistance, education, job training, and help finding and retaining employment.  (Entry dated fall 2006)


Assistance for the Disabled
Disabled offenders, including those with chronic mental illness, have special needs when released from prison that if not addressed increase the likelihood of recidivism.  With funding and technical assistance from The Nicholson Foundation, the New Jersey Department of Corrections has hired two social workers to develop and implement comprehensive discharge plans for offenders with disabilities.  The social workers help process applications for Supplemental Security Income or Social Security Disability Insurance, food stamps, Veterans benefits, health, mental health, and substance abuse treatment as well as other necessary support services.  Once released, disabled offenders are able to access services such as medical treatment without delay, improving the likelihood that they will be able to remain in the community without reverting to criminal activities.  (Entry dated fall 2006)


Distance Learning
Securing employment as soon as possible upon release from prison is an effective way to reduce recidivism, as it breaks the ex-offender’s ties to a criminal past.  Many incarcerated individuals, however, lack the basic literacy and other skills necessary to find and hold a job.  While some need to develop occupational skills, others need to improve their overall educational level to increase their chances of finding work.  The Mayor of Newark, the State Parole Board, the State Department of Corrections, Essex County Department of Citizen Services, the Essex and Newark Workforce Investment Boards, Essex County Community College, Rutgers University and The North Ward Center, with Nicholson Foundation project management assistance and funding, are implementing a computer-based, distance learning program to enable offenders to take courses remotely while still incarcerated and continue them once released.  A pilot is housed at the Kintock half-way house; it has required installing a secure network and has involved identifying and creating appropriate distance-learning modules.  The learning modules will offer a range of programs including job skills training, adult basic education, GED preparation, and college-level courses.  Due to be rolled out in 2007, the distance learning program will enable offenders to begin courses while they are in prison and, if successful, to keep their computers and continue their studies from home, post release.  (Entry dated fall 2006)