New Jersey lawmakers are looking to create an independent advocate to help vulnerable populations that are under state supervision.
State Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-37), along with State Sens. Nellie Pou (D-35) and Linda Greenstein (D-14), intend to introduce legislation to create the advocate with investigative and legal power to protect the safety and rights of those in state and county correctional facilities, veterans homes, psychiatric hospitals, developmental centers, community-based programs and under state guardianship.
The proposed law comes in response to the failure of the Corrections Department to respond properly to Justice Department findings of sexual abuse and civil right rights violations at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women, the cover-up of the January 11 assaults on women inmates, and the failure and cover-up by the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs of the wave of COVID-19 deaths at the Paramus Veterans Home, according to Weinberg.
“Too often, the administrators responsible do everything they can to prevent public disclosure of the crisis or abuse,” Weinberg. “We need a truly independent public advocate to protect the most vulnerable, and we need broad-based community advisory boards at each institution to provide oversight and advocate for those who cannot effectively advocate for themselves.”
The reform bill, developed in consultation with advocates, requires the establishment of broad-based community advisory boards to provide oversight of each state and county institution, and hold quarterly public meetings with administrators to discuss issues and complaints.
Greenstein noted the Senate Law and Public Safety Committee that she chairs held hearings on the U.S. Justice Department Civil Rights Division report on the abuses at Edna Mahan in April 2020, members couldn’t even find any record that the prison’s board of trustees had ever met.
“We need boards that include advocates, experts, family members, former inmates or residents, union or staff representatives, and community leaders who know what is happening in these institutions and would hold regularly scheduled public meetings with administrators to discuss issues and complaints,” Greenstein said.
“If we had such a board at the Paramus Veterans Home, we would have known about the pandemic sweeping through the facility much sooner.”
The legislation the three senators are developing would create an independent public advocate with broad investigatory powers, including the ability to enter institutions at any time and meet with staff and inmates or residents as well as file lawsuits if corrective actions are not undertaken.
“If we had an independent public advocate in place, it is inconceivable that we would still be waiting 10 months later for the Corrections Department or the Administration to agree to a consent order with the Justice Department to implement needed reforms and put federal monitors into Edna Mahan, which Corrections Commissioner Marcus Hicks said he expected to be part of the settlement,” said Pou.
The proposal comes as Assemblywoman Jean Stanfield recently filed impeachment charges against Hicks. The resolution, sponsored by Assemblywomen Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-37) and Nancy Munoz (D-21), charges Hicks with constitutional violations for failing to protect inmates at Edna Mahan Correctional Facility.
Unlike the Department of the Public Advocate reporting to the governor’s office—abolished twice by governors who objected to its activities—the legislatures are working with the non-partisan Office of Legislative Services to provide a bipartisan reporting structure and independence for the new agency, similar to the State Auditor or the State Commission of Investigation.
“One thing we’ve learned from past experience is that the public advocate cannot report to the governor or another Cabinet official,” said Weinberg. “The new agency must be truly independent to be effective—and to survive.”