Best of #StateReads: Dangerous Times in New Jersey Halfway Houses

  • June 20, 2012
  • By Daniel C. Vock

This week's collection of #StateReads explores a system of violent halfway houses in New Jersey, details the cuts Oregon public schools face to keep their pension system on stable ground and explains how state rules have made it harder for jobless families to qualify for welfare benefits.

These examples of extraordinary journalism about state government were recommended in tweets using the #StateReads hashtag on Twitter and in email submissions to dvock@stateline.org.

“Unlocked: Inside New Jersey's halfway houses” — The New York Times

Reporter Sam Dolnick's (@SamDolnick) three-part series examines New Jersey's privately run halfway houses. “With little oversight,” he writes, “the state's halfway houses have mutated into a shadow corrections network, where drugs, gang activity and violence, including sexual assaults, often go unchecked, according to a 10-month investigation by The New York Times.” That network has holes, Dolnick reports, allowing 1,300 inmates to escape during Governor Chris Christie's tenure. Residents who remain are often warehoused in large facilities with little supervision, which are so bad occupants regularly ask to return to prison, Dolnick writes. In one case, Essex County sent a nonviolent offender to a halfway house, so that it could rent out cell space to the federal government instead. But that inmate encountered more dangerous residents at the halfway house; they robbed and killed him. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie ordered new inspections of the facilities, citing the problems highlighted by the series.

“‘Back at square one': As states repurpose welfare funds, more families fall through safety net” — The Huffington Post

Many of the key elements of the 1996 federal welfare reform law, which gave states more power to customize their own programs, no longer work, writes Peter S. Goodman (@PeterSGoodman). Even with a weak job market, states have cut programs and imposed rules making it harder for poor people to qualify for benefits. “The one feature of welfare reform that has endured, say experts, is the emphasis on slashing welfare rolls,” Goodman writes. His piece focuses on “the disconnected” in Georgia, people who are out of work but not receiving welfare.

“Government transparency in N.J. a murky affair” — The Philadelphia Inquirer

Reporter Matt Katz (@mattkatz00) shares a first-hand account of his struggles (and that of other reporters) to get public information from the administration of Governor Chris Christie. At the center of the story is the Government Records Council, a panel of Christie appointees that considers appeals when the administration denies records requests. The council's meetings are public, but the only ones who know what members are voting on are the members themselves. The people who request the records find out whether they won an appeal only when a notice arrives in the mail about a week later. “I was dumbfounded,” Katz writes. “Imagine Congress voting on Obamacare live on C-SPAN but not saying afterward which way it had voted.”

“PERS: Unfunded liability of pension funds tightens its grip around Oregon” — The Oregonian

Although Oregon has one of the best-funded pension systems in the country, keeping it on solid footing is forcing local schools to lay off teachers, cut days from the calendar and trim the types of classes offered, reports Ted Sickinger of The Oregonian (@Oregonian). The situation will only get trickier next year, when pension contributions increase statewide by a third. “That $1 billion statewide — almost $700 per household,” Singer writes, “will go to feed the pension system rather than public services.”

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