Sen. Lesniak: Use Retired Judges for Parole Board

Sen. Ray Lesniak is proposing something lawmakers in Trenton rarely do — overhauling a state board whose members are entirely politically appointed.

“First of all, it’s a dumping ground for political patronage,” Lesniak said.

The New Jersey Parole Board — responsible for prisoner reentry — is made up of 12 members. Each is appointed by the governor and subject to senatorial review. Lesniak says this is where backroom deals are made, and this is one way to end it.

“My proposal will save millions of dollars. Tens of millions of dollars if we replace these political appointees with retired judges,” he said. “Instead of giving them $120,000 a year — what they get now — retired judges get $300 a day and they already have their pension and health care benefits.”

Using retired judges — and the $300 a day salary they get when called to serve as arbitrators — would save the state about $1.2 million a year. That doesn’t include the costs for pension and health benefits.

“I first started with just blocking Jack Kelly, totally the poster child of what happens with these types of appointments. Has absolutely no qualifications for the job. It would be his third public job. He’d be a triple dipper,” Lesniak said.

Kelly is the Ocean County freeholder who’s twice failed nomination to the Parole Board by Gov. Chris Christie outraged Democrats. Kelly is most notably known for his role in denying a dying police lieutenant the ability to give her county pension to her same-sex partner.

“I do not believe that filling the board with retired judges would necessarily be the appropriate place, the appropriate way to have this board function. Do I think we can tighten up requirements, background for membership on the board? Absolutely,” said Sen. Loretta Weinberg.

Weinberg backed Lesniak’s push to block Kelly. But she doesn’t believe a group of lawyers — retired judges — is the answer.

“I wouldn’t want to see unanimity in terms of having those people decide who really is worthy of redemption,” she said.

“No one wants to do away, except me, with this system because these are political appointees, these are your buddies. The are the people that supported you in campaigns,” Lesniak said.

In today’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Sen. Lesniak voted “no” to each of the nine nominees.

Are there gubernatorial political calculations here? We know Senate President Steve Sweeney, another candidate, has three members from his district up for nomination. Are there campaign politics at play with this move?

“First of all I’ve been campaigning against the Parole Board for years. I’ve been trying to reduce their authority by actually making prisoners earn their parole as opposed to having this Parole Board decide their fate in life,” Lesniak said.

It’s unlikely Sen. Lesniak will get support for this measure from either side of the aisle. But as he puts it, it won’t stop him from reaching.