New Jersey Governor Chris Christie ordered more inspections of privately run halfway houses after a report that the facilities were rampant with sexual assaults, drugs and a trail of violence, including homicide, by escapees.
The New York Times cited a 10-month investigation in its report on Community Education Centers Inc., a closely held company with political connections to Christie, a Republican who faces re-election in 2013. Since 2005, 5,100 former prison inmates have escaped from the state’s privately run halfway houses, including at least 1,300 since Christie took office in 2010, the Times said.
William J. Palatucci, a political adviser to Christie, is a senior vice president at Community Education. The Times report on the company was published as Christie, 49, negotiates a tax cut with lawmakers and tries to win approval of his $32.1 billion budget before a July 1 deadline.
“While many of the disturbing accounts reported in today’s New York Times documenting lax oversight and accountability in some of New Jersey’s halfway houses took place prior to this administration, we have an obligation to ensure the community placements program is effectively and safely operating today,” Christie, a former U.S. prosecutor, said in a statement.
Democratic Assemblyman Joseph Cryan, an undersheriff from Union County who serves on his chamber’s Law and Public Safety Committee, said the operations of the West Caldwell-based company should be suspended until an investigation determines the validity of claims by the Times. He and Assemblyman Charles Mainor, a Democrat from Jersey City who heads the law committee, called for hearings.
‘Protecting the Public’
The Times reported that in 2010, David Goodell fled the Logan Hall halfway house in Newark and killed his girlfriend, who was from Garfield. Brigid Harrison, a law and political science professor at Montclair State University, said the reports may be “enormously damaging” for Christie.
“Any political opponent will seize on the very compelling stories of the victims,” she said in a telephone interview.
Democratic Senator Barbara Buono criticized corrections officials’ oversight of the centers, which handle as many as 3,714 offenders at six locations, according to the company’s website.
“They should be protecting the public, not turning a profit for a politically connected company,” she said in an e-mail.
Reached by telephone today, Palatucci said the Times story was an attempt to state a preference for a public policy and bring about a change in the privatization of halfway houses. He said the report overlooked independent data that didn’t bear out assumptions made in the story.
“New Jersey’s got the best system in the country,” said Palatucci, who was co-chairman of Christie’s inaugural committee. “It can always be fine-tuned and improved, but let’s focus first on acknowledging that the community corrections system in New Jersey has worked well.”
Palatucci said the state currently has 2,742 beds in so-called community-corrections centers compared with 2,700 10 years ago. Under former Democratic Governor Jon Corzine, New Jersey increased funding to the facilities to $61.5 million from $51.3 million, he said.
Michael Drewniak, a spokesman for Christie, said the story was “hit-job journalism at its absolute worst.”
“The Times paints a wantonly false and inflammatory story that ignores the true successes of community corrections in our state and a long bipartisan-supported approach that balances re-entry services for those most amenable to rehabilitation programs with traditional prison,” Drewniak said in an e-mail earlier today.
Steven Goldberg, a spokesman for Corzine, declined to comment on the story when reached by telephone.
“The political threat to someone like Chris Christie is if a major, heinous crime occurs by one of these escapees,” Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University in Lawrenceville, said in a telephone interview.
In 1988, a crime spree by convicted murderer Willie R. Horton, released from a Massachusetts prison on a weekend pass, led to the political downfall of then-Governor Michael Dukakis, who had supported such furloughs.
“No politician wants a Willie Horton story on their record, and that’s the story here,” Dworkin said.