Former governor Jim McGreevey talks prison reform

By Hailey Hensley

Students, staff and community members alike stood along the walls and sat in tables in the Mercer Room on Feb. 18 eagerly awaiting the beginning of a much-anticipated talk by former New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey. 

Guests chatted away but were quickly silenced when McGreevey made the decision to begin his talk a few minutes earlier than anticipated, due to the already full house. 

Micah Rassmussen, director for the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics, stated that “We stopped accepting RSVPs once we reached the room’s capacity. Clearly more participants turned out than responded. That Governor McGreevey generated such strong interest and that people decided to stand and stay are real indications of how engaging he was.”

McGreevey served two years as the governor of New Jersey and resigned from office after a complicated scandal revolving around his sexuality as well as financial issues in 2004. 

The event was organized by the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics. Rassmussen worked as McGreevey’s press secretary during his tenure in office. 

McGreevey opened his talk by thanking the audience as a whole, as well as specific audience members who he knew well. 

He then moved on to discuss his time before his governorship as well as what led him to his current ideals.   

 “I went to college and law school and graduate school and I came back and I was a prosecutor in Middlesex County. You start off in kiddy-court, prosecuting juveniles. I remember that I was putting these kids away and these were some of the smartest kids and you were putting them away because they sold CDS, controlled dangerous substances,” he said. “The reality was, for these kids who were in public housing projects, it was the only economic opportunity available to them. And I thought to myself, ‘ Why are we putting all these kids away for taking the only opportunity available to them?’ and that stayed with me.”

McGreevey repeatedly emphasized the need for job training for prison inmates and those recently released, citing it as the number one way to keep people from reoffending.  

“We train guys and gals to be, for example, diesel mechanics and HVAC operators. We want the possibility that someone is going to have a skill-based job instead of just working in a warehouse for thirty, sixty, ninety days doing back-breaking labor and not developing skills necessary to have a career,” McGreevey said. 

Throughout his talk, McGreevey often lightened deeply serious discussions by cracking relevant jokes that often had the audience rolling in laughter and deeply engaged in his talking points. 

He heavily referenced statistics relating to imprisonment in the United States that placed it as the country with the most prisoners per capita. 

“…the reality is that there are 19,000 fellow New Jerseyans right now in prison, and there’s 85,000 more churning through county jails, in and out during the course of a year,” McGreevey said. “I’d also like to emphasize that America is only 5% of the world’s population and we have 25% of the world’s incarcerated population. That means we lock up more fellow Americans than any other country locks up their fellow citizens. We’re number one.”

McGreevey reiterated his passion for lowering recidivism rates, or the rate of inmates reoffending, through job training programs and giving inmates a path to learn valuable skills that will lead to long-lasting and sustainable employment. 

“If we’re willing to spend 52,000 to lock someone up for a year, which is an insane amount of money, we should be willing to spend a fraction of that cost investing in education that’s going to give someone the tools necessary to compete in this marketplace,” McGreevey said. 

The audience heavily participated in the question and answer section, with detailed answers always to follow from the former governor. He seemed to take each question into careful consideration before answering and appeared delighted that the audience was interested in his work with inmates and the recently released. 

Rasmussen highlighted the importance of McGreevey’s campus visit as well as his work since leaving office, where he has remained closely tied to New Jersey politics, especially relating to criminal justice reform. 

“New Jersey has one of the strongest governorships in the nation.  It is vested with more powers and responsibilities than any other, and it is the epicenter of New Jersey politics.  We only have seven living people who have been elected governor of New Jersey, and in the last year, three of them have visited with us on campus,” Rasmussen said. “So each of their perspectives are critical to our understanding of the office and the power it holds, but Governor McGreevey is particularly fascinating both as a leader and political figure, and in the vital work he has done in the years since he left office.”

McGreevey wrapped up his talk discussing future plans and his next steps in life, with audience members directly asking what the future holds, to which he deadpan responded that his next step was “death.” 

“You guys are all walking up the hill, I’m walking down it all. You realize these things don’t last forever,” he said. “You realize you want America to be better, you want the next generation to be better and you want the next generation to give a darn.”

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