CAMDEN, NJ— Camden County will look to reduce the recidivism rates of its current jail population thanks to the help of a national grant.

County officials announced Wednesday that it was one 12 jurisdictions across the nation selected to join the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge, a national $148 million initiative to reduce over-incarceration by changing the way America thinks about and uses jails.

The county was awarded $50,000 through the Challenge’s Innovation Fund to use over 15 months to launch a multi-prong program that will “break the cycle of re-entry,” said Camden County Correctional Facility Warden Karen Taylor.

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“We want to make sure that we get released individuals into stable environments,” Camden County Freeholder Bill Moen said.

The Camden County Correctional Facility is designed to house 1,273 individuals. In 2009, the average daily population was 1,686, said Sharon Bean, Camden County Jail population manager. Today, that number is down to 810, Bean said. The average length of stay in the Camden County Jail has also decreased since 2009, down from 39 to 25 days, according to Bean, who credited New Jersey’s Criminal Justice Reform adopted in 2017 and called it a “miracle of government.”

“This is a testimony to the intentional, thoughtful collaboration of all our criminal justice system and community stakeholders and their commitment to safely reduce the jail population,” said Bean.

The next phase of jail reform, said Bean, is re-entry.

“We would not be standing here today talking about re-entry if our jail was still operating over capacity. Our long journey has afforded us the ability to be innovative, to think creatively, and to strategically develop plans and best practices for individuals who are leaving our facility and returning home to the community in Camden County,” said Bean.

The funding from the grant will go to forming a community engagement strategy that aims reduce the overall use of the Camden County Jail by forming partnerships between organizations involved in the re-entry phase of the justice system.

“The community is often thought of last in the re-entry conversation, however, community support is fundamental to its success,” Taylor said.

The strategy will include developing a monthly re-entry forum; developing a training continuum for system and community stakeholders; improving accessibility of services and treatment information through an interactive re-entry website; developing a media campaign to promote re-entry efforts and engage the community; and developing and training a network of previously incarcerated individuals to serve as re-entry peer specialists.

“This community engagement strategy will allow Camden County to test its approach in an effort to develop a better understanding of key issues related to reducing recidivism rate and overall jail population,” Taylor said.

Darryl Brooks is one of the re-entry peer specialists. Brooks, who served a prison sentence for possession of drugs and intent to distribute, is now a criminal justice major at Rutgers University—Camden.

“Not every human being confined in a correctional facility has been sentenced to a life sentence without parole. They will return,” Brooks said. “Embracing inmates means accepting the human being as fallible … actively advocating for programs that prepare incarcerated individuals to return to society with a trade or college-level education, and joined with basic technology skills add to the worth of the community, instead of creating opportunities for unemployment, which leads to further criminal behavior.

All Innovation Fund jurisdictions are eligible for future funding opportunities, and have access to the resources, peer learning opportunities, and expertise of the Safety and Justice Challenge Network.

The Urban Institute, which is managing the Innovation Fund in partnership with the Foundation, will provide expert technical assistance to the jurisdictions as they implement their plans. Key learnings and resources emerging from the Innovation Fund will be shared with and beyond the justice reform field.