Monday, April 25, 2016
New Jersey voters who approved bail reform legislation may soon experience "buyer's remorse," according to Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson.
"The legislation was sold to voters as a cost-savings measure, but in reality its implementation will require increases in staff, salaries, health benefits, building operations, overtime and more, all of which must be borne by the county taxpayers," stated Levinson. "These expenses come at a time when counties can least afford them."
According to Levinson, Atlantic County will need to budget as much as $2.5 million a year to fully fund this state-mandated program.
"Atlantic County has a population of approximately 275,000. Imagine how much this will cost the taxpayers in some of the state's largest counties such as Bergen, Essex, and Middlesex with populations of more than 700,000."
The Bail Reform/Speedy Trial Act was passed following the voters approval in November 2014 of an amendment to the state Constitution. It is designed to reduce daily populations at county jails and make the bail process more equitable by requiring any person arrested on a new warrant after January 1, 2017 to have a hearing within 48 hours, including weekends.
"These changes, however laudable, come at a great expense," said Levinson.
He noted that serious criminals could be released should the 48-hour deadline be surpassed or time frames for indictment or trial deadlines be missed. Making those deadlines will be even more difficult if the Chief Justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court gets his wish to require hearings within a 24-hour deadline.
Another serious concern with the issue of detention is the defendant's legal right to present "witnesses" at these pre-trial, evidentiary hearings. At the present time there is no language that would preclude a defendant from asking the alleged victim(s) to appear and provide proof of wrongdoing.
Add to this the financial burdens on county governments that will be forced to keep county courthouses open on weekends and hire more staff to accommodate the time constraints for both bail reform and the speedy trial process.
In Atlantic County, the Prosecutor has requested 10 additional assistant prosecutors and four additional clerical/victim witness staff while the Sheriff will need seven more officers. The toll on the 14 counties larger than Atlantic will be even greater.
"The bail reform process has become just another example of actions taken by Trenton special interests and the judiciary that result in very significant increased financial costs to county taxpayers," said Levinson. "Instead of thinking of ways to lower taxes, Trenton continues to create situations that further increase our tax burden. How many times have counties been asked by the State of New Jersey to implement programs without the benefit of funding resources? It is no accident that New Jersey pays the highest taxes in the country."
Levinson also cautioned that the new bail reform may not achieve the perceived benefit of reducing jail populations.
"A number of counties, like Atlantic County, have already been successful in reducing daily populations and associated costs at their jails through cooperation among jail administrators, the courts, and law enforcement in using various release measures and tracking systems."
The county executive offered another option for cost-effective reform.
"Amend bail laws to provide judges with the authority to keep individuals charged with serious offenses and with serious records in jail while providing bail opportunities or bracelet tracking for those with minor third and fourth degree offenses. It seems to me we already have the necessary resources, we just need to make better use of them."
At a minimum, Levinson believes the Bail Reform/Speedy Trial Act warrants thorough review by the state legislators.
"How much more can New Jersey taxpayers be expected to absorb," questioned Levinson. "This legislation leaves too many questions unanswered, most importantly how deep it will reach into the taxpayers pocket."