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Distinguished Lecture: Former Governor Jim McGreevey speaks on prisoner reentry programs

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Former New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey, who served in that position from 2002 to 2004 before stepping down over a scandal involving his hiring of man with whom he had been having an affair, spoke at Mercer’s “Distinguished Lecture Series” on November 21. In the thirteen years since the abrupt end of his work as state Governor, McGreevy went back to school to train to become a priest, and then began working with former prison inmates who are released following the completion of their sentences.

McGreevy currently serves as executive director of Jersey City Employment and Training Program and is chairman of the New Jersey Reentry Corporation. He spoke to an audience made up primarily of criminal justice majors about his work with those programs.

When The VOICE asked Professor Cooley, what he hoped students would gain from McGreevey’s lecture he said “Offender reentry [into prison] has always been a problem, and continues to be a problem. It’s a concern we just want to convey, not just to our students, but the public at large.”

Key points McGreevey made while speaking included the importance of giving released prisoners second chances, helping them get jobs, and being mindful of the racial and socioeconomic factors, especially in terms of the plight of those struggling with mental health and addiction challenges and who live in the inner cities.

The belief in second chances was brought up on multiple occasions, both in McGreevey’s lecture, and amongst those who reflected on it.

McGreevy told the audience “we’ve got to change attitudes,” adding  “People make mistakes. Hello! I’m the first person to know. I make mistakes every single day of my life. But I don’t want to be defined by those mistakes. The point is, is we gotta understand that people can grow, people can mature. For me it’s spiritual development.”

  During the presentation, McGreevy briefly turned the presentation over to his friend Tracey Syphax, a former prisoner who explained that since completing his sentence in the 1990s he has worked his way up to become head of two multimillion dollar companies. According to The African American Chamber of Commerce New Jersey website Syphax’s companies include Capitol City Contracting, Inc., a construction company, and The Phax Group, LLC., a real estate development company.

Syphax told the audience that he received vocational training while in prison and that this enabled him to work his way up from laborer to supervisor and eventually leave to start his own businesses.”

Criminal Justice Professor Cavit Cooley, who organized the event, told The VOICE: “Everybody makes mistakes.” He also said of those coming home from prison, “they need to have opportunities.”

Creating opportunities for those confronted with the stigma of being a felon is a major part of what McGreevey does, and what he spoke about.

One way McGreevey helps former inmates find employment is by enrolling them in “a skill based job program that’s gonna give you something called an ‘industry recognized credential,’” he said at the lecture.

As an example, he mentioned perhaps being “a licensed HVAC…so that you know how to do air conditioning, you know how to do heating systems…that’s gonna give you an industry recognized credential. That’s gonna help you get that job.”      

Syphax told the VOICE he wishes McGreevey would have also discussed entrepreneurship training. “There’s so many other brothers and sisters that are coming home each year that have what it takes to be in business that are just not gonna get [conventional] employment,” he said.

Another major issue that was raised at the event was race and socioeconomic status. One Mercer community in particular, Robbinsville, was mentioned to illustrate McGreevy’s thoughts on the subject.

During the lecture, McGreevy said,  “When a young African, when a young kid, young person from the hood comes out, doesn’t have any money and commits a drug crime, traditionally he or she couldn’t access treatment while a middle class kid from Robbinsville or wherever could access treatment and there would be a very different result.”    

In an interview with the VOICE after the lecture, McGreevy added, when explaining why he decided to speak at Mercer, “Well I think Mercer Community College has a strong program in Criminal Justice. It’s a progressive community and I think there’s a willingness to tackle difficult issues so, it’s a student population that’s engaged, that’s inquizitive, and that wants to wrestle with some of these difficult policy questions.”

According to Professor Cooley his criminal justice students who attended the lecture gave it mixed reviews. Some found McGreevy’s style abrupt, but it was also seen to be informative overall.

While reflecting on the event overall, Professor Cooley noted “If there are some programs available that could diminish their chances of going back that’s a savings to taxpayers and it appears that [McGreevey’s] program is a little bit better than many.”

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