TRENTON - As inmates' last stop before reentering society, halfway houses help people stay clean and find jobs, and most follow the rules and eventually go home, operators of the facilities told a state Senate panel Thursday.

But corrections officers and a former halfway house employee said drugs, violence, and escapes are the norm at some of the state's 20 halfway houses - all privately run - and often many of the occupants are prisoners awaiting trial rather than release.

"When the inspectors leave is when the problems start," said Joe Amato, a corrections officer at the Essex County jail. Amato, a 24-year corrections veteran, said inmates have begged to stay in jail rather than be sent to Delaney Hall, a Newark halfway house operated by Community Education Centers Inc. (CEC) that can hold almost 1,200 men at a time.

State Comptroller Matthew Boxer warned of problems with security and escapes at halfway houses in an audit in June 2011, which at least one of the senators admitted Thursday he hadn't read. Legislators called for hearings on halfway house oversight after a 10-month investigation by the New York Times revealed gang activity, violence, and poor security at some of the six halfway houses run by CEC, the only for-profit operator.

CEC receives about half of the $64 million spent annually on the reentry centers, the rest of which are run by nonprofits.

About 2,864 people resided in New Jersey's halfway houses as of January 2012.

Top executives from the two other major halfway house providers - the Kintock Group and Volunteers of America, which operates three halfway houses in Camden - also took questions from the panel. But the questioners focused on CEC-operated facilities.

CEC has ties to Republican Gov. Christie: The company's senior vice president, William Palatucci, is a close friend and political adviser of the governor. But the state has contracted with CEC since 1994, long before Christie's term.

And Democrats have been the larger recipient of the company's political donations: CEC and its top executive have given about $600,000, most of it in the last decade, the vast majority of it going to Democratic candidates, parties, and political action committees, according to state campaign finance records.

Three senators on the Senate Legislative Oversight Committee, which held the hearing Thursday, have received contributions from the group: Sen. Robert Gordon (D., Bergen), the committee chairman; Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D., Essex); and Sen. Joseph Kyrillos (R., Monmouth), who is running for the U.S. Senate this year.

By design, halfway houses lack the security of prisons, operators told the Senate panel. If a fight breaks out, there are no trained corrections officers on hand to intervene.

But halfway house operators said fights actually were rare.

There have been only four fights at another CEC facility, Talbot Hall in Kearny, since it opened in 1998, said John J. Clancy, CEC's chief executive officer.

Gordon asked if it would be wiser to have a trained corrections officer on hand at each halfway house to keep order if needed.

"We have police officers at sporting events," he said. "There are thousands of people moving through some of these places."

CEC kept a corrections officer on staff when Talbot Hall opened, but after eight years, the company let him go.

"There was nothing for him to do," Clancy said.

Derrick Watkins, former deputy director of treatment at a CEC halfway house in Trenton, said Clancy's statements did not match what he has seen.

"They're at the corporate level, they're supposed to say that," Watkins said in an interview.

During his three years at CEC's Albert M. "Bo" Robinson Assessment and Treatment Center, Watkins said, residents outnumbered counselors 25-1 at some points.

Some counselors were afraid to even walk down hallways crowded with residents, let alone try to break up fights or interfere with drug sales or gang activity, he said.

Watkins said he and other senior managers were fired in 2010 when Mercer County officials discovered drug sales and use at the facility. According to the Times, 73 percent of the Robinson residents tested positive for drugs.

State Corrections Commissioner Gary Lanigan suggested that the situation was not as alarming as the statistics made it seem.

He testified that a resident is labeled an "escape" whether he runs out the front door or returns from work 20 minutes late.

Since 2005, about 2,400 have "escaped" or "walked away" from the state's halfway houses. Of those, 98 percent have been caught; nearly 30 percent returned within 24 hours, and nearly 60 percent were back in custody after one week, he said.

But Thaddeus Caldwell, a former senior corrections investigator who chased down halfway house escapees, said his department of six had struggled to keep up.

"There were hundreds of open cases, upward of about 300," he testified.

And while halfway house operators focused on the benefits of helping inmates readjust to society, they didn't talk about housing pretrial inmates.

Some halfway houses operate as a kind of overflow facility for county jails, but they have none of the safeguards, Amato said. As of Thursday, only 36 of Delaney Hall's 798 residents had been sentenced, he said.

Logan Hall, a smaller CEC facility in Newark, held 216 residents Thursday, of whom only 36 had gone to trial.

"How are we providing reentry services to an inmate that's facing the possibility of 30 years to life?" he said during testimony. "They haven't been arraigned yet. . . . We haven't assessed their threat level."

Christie, who signed a bill Thursday that will mandate treatment for nonviolent drug-addicted offenders, defended the state's halfway house system under his administration. Escapes have decreased 42 percent from 2005 to 2011, the Department of Corrections confirmed.

"There's always going to be problems and mistakes," Christie said. "The important thing is to correct the mistakes when they're made."

The Senate committee will consider Thursday's testimony before deciding whether to hold additional hearings or consider legislation, a spokesman said.

An Assembly panel is to hear testimony on the halfway house issue Monday.