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More Communication Needed

by Albert B. Kelly, Mayor, City of Bridgeton

The higher up you go in the government food chain, the more distance exists between bureaucracy and the place where people live their everyday lives. When you’re at the municipal and county level, you often have to live with whatever gets handed down to you from state or federal government. One recent example involves the release of inmates from state prison in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

While some are opposed to releasing any incarcerated person in response to the pandemic, I’m not one of them. I say that because evidence suggests that public health is extremely difficult to maintain in institutional settings. Covid-19 is a deadly pandemic and guidance calls for social distancing, which is impossible to do in prison.

While I support the idea that people pay their debts to society, those sentenced to a number of months in prison shouldn’t have to pay with their life, which is easily the case in the midst of a highly contagious pandemic. The idea of an early release is understandable.

What’s not so understandable is the lack of communication from the state about who is being released back onto our streets. The release of inmates can go unnoticed and often does. I’ve noticed because I spend hours working Bridgeton’s Code Blue program for the homeless and note the number of new faces on our streets.

What would be helpful is for those departments and agencies releasing inmates to notify jurisdictions with names and other relevant information of those released. I have asked, but I get nothing due to “confidentiality,” a thin argument when residents are the ones potentially facing all the risk.

How many persons involved in the recent crime surge, regionally or statewide, are among those released because of the pandemic? If even a few, is it possible that law enforcement in the affected communities might have been able to keep a closer watch had they been informed about who was released? It’s hard to know but these are questions worth asking.

I’m not sure the issue is confidentiality so much as accountability. No one wants to be the target if the lines trace certain crimes back to individuals who were released early. So it happens silently with little communication or coordination as we hope for the best when some new faces show up on our streets. There’s got to be a better way.

Another example involves Sober Living Houses. I’m not too familiar with them, but one recently appeared in a quiet residential neighborhood with no announcement or communication. In a world where zoning board applicants have to send notice to a 200-foot list of nearby homes and businesses, you’d think the neighborhood might get a heads-up.

I’m not one for stereotypes, but you can’t blame people for being fearful that a house full of recovering addicts and alcoholics, perhaps some with criminal records, might have a few problems along the way. You also can’t blame people for asking who provides oversight and if oversight is checking in once a week or daily. What are the house rules and what happens if they’re broken?

When these living arrangements are approved, there’s no notice to the community of which I’m aware. A community likely finds out about a sober living home when concerned neighbors want to know what’s going on next door. There needs to be a system in place for communities to be informed since residents have to contend with potential risks and problems in their own neighborhoods.

Mayoral Musings