The cost of criminal justice reform

UNION COUNTY, NJ — A major overhaul of New Jersey bail rules will now establish nonmonetary bail alternatives for individuals unable to afford bail while awaiting their trials. The new rules, which go into effect in January, will speed up pretrial procedures and nearly eliminate monetary payment of bail.

The new bail rules will now determine pretrial incarceration based on the risk in releasing a defendant, rather than whether a defendant can post bail. Courts will also be required to meet tighter deadlines for bringing a defendant to trial.
The requirements stem from legislation signed in August 2014 by Gov. Chris Christie and a state constitutional amendment approved by voters several months later.

All 21 counties in New Jersey will be implementing these new rules, with the hope of achieving what the New Jersey Association of Counties calls a “fair and equitable administration of justice.”

The criminal justice reform will require that a speedy trial apply to an eligible defendant for whom a complaint warrant is issued, if the initial charge involved is an indictable or disorderly persons offense, and if the defendant is detained, once a public safety assessment is conducted. The new law will also establish three separate speedy trial time standards, and will require county prosecutors to be ready for trial within two years of a defendant’s commitment to county jail. If prosecutors are not ready within the established timeframe, defendants will be released on conditions set by the court.

But the criminal justice reform will come at a price, according to the NJAC. In order to process eligible defendants according to the newly established timeframes, county prosecutors will have to hire new assistant prosecutors, investigators and administrative staff. In addition, the extra staff will require counties to make infrastructure expansions and improvements.

In a statement put out by the association, the NJAC outlines some of the new costs to counties throughout the state. “Criminal Justice Reform will cost county governments across the state an estimated $45 million to implement, as they must hire new staff and make improvements to county court facilities,” John Donnadio, executive director of the NJAC, said.

According to Donnadio, criminal justice reform will require the judiciary, through its new Pretrial Services Unit, to prepare a risk assessment and recommendation on conditions of release for every eligible defendant issued a complaint warrant beginning on Jan. 1, 2017.

“The Pretrial Services Unit must complete and present the risk assessment, conducted by an automated Public Safety Assessment, to the court within 48 hours after a defendant’s commitment to jail,” Donnadio said in his statement.
The risk assessment, which will help determine whether to hold a defendant in jail while awaiting trial, will take various factors into account, including prior convictions, the severity of the alleged crime, and whether the defendant has missed prior court dates. Those who are released will be monitored upon release, while those deemed too dangerous to release will remain incarcerated until trial.

According to Donnadio, however, one of the new goals for the unit is to complete these assessments within 24 hours of a defendant’s incarceration, forcing court facilities to remain open — at a high cost to counties. “Although a laudable objective, this new procedure will force county court facilities to open on weekends, and will generate the following clear, substantial and ongoing costs,” Donnadio said, citing several examples.

Some of those costs will include the need to provide security at county court facilities during weekends, so county sheriffs will have to hire new officers and pay overtime to current officers.

Another ongoing cost will be operating and maintaining county court facilities during weekends, when counties will incur additional maintenance and utility expenses. In addition, county governing bodies will have to make improvements to existing court facilities in order to accommodate the additional staff for the judiciary’s new Pretrial Services Unit.

While the state is responsible for paying for the salaries of employees associated with the new unit with monies deposited in the 21st Century Justice Improvement Fund, county freeholder boards must pay for the operation, maintenance, and capital improvements of the county court facilities. County governing bodies are also mandated by state law to fund county sheriff and county prosecutor offices.

The 21st Century Justice Improvement Fund, subsidized by an increase in various court fees, will provide $22 million for the development, maintenance and administration of the statewide pretrial services program, with an additional $10 million for the development, maintenance and administration of the statewide digital eCourt information system. Another $10 million will be allocated to Legal Services of New Jersey.

“Unfortunately, the fund will not allocate monies to county governing bodies for the costs associated with implementing and administering criminal justice reform,” Donnadio said.

Union County Freeholder Bruce Bergen told LocalSource that the issue is a complex one. “Though Union County owns and runs the jail, the issue of bail, ability to pay, and release, is really an issue to be addressed to the courts and the prosecutor,” Bergen said in an email. “The county is responsible for housing inmates and for the cost of the jail, but not for determining who should be incarcerated or under what circumstance. Anecdotally, this is generally acknowledged as a problem not only within Union County and New Jersey, but on the national level.”

Bergen said that the personnel and capital costs to Union County have been included in the county’s 2016 budget. These include the hiring of 11 prosecutors at a total cost of $700,000, 18 sheriffs at a total cost of $732,000, four facilities-management positions at a total cost of $160,000, plus approximately $200,000 in other expenses. The total expense to the county will come to approximately $1.8 million, according to Bergen.

Bergen said the 2016 Union County budget reflects the first year cost of implementing bail reform in Union County. “This amount represents approximately 18 percent of the total tax increase billed to Union County taxpayers in the 2016 budget, over the 2015 budget,” he said, referring to the $1.8 million total.

Although Bergen said that while the new rules may ultimately save counties money, the current related costs are daunting. “In the long run, it is anticipated the new rules will save money, create a more equitable system and diminish the jail population,” he said. “But for now, this is another unfunded mandate from the state to the counties. Even though this expense may not actually fall within the strict definitions of the state mandate/state pay law, it does require all counties to spend money, and as of now there is no state reimbursement or contribution. At this time, it is impossible to predict when that savings will begin, and how long it will take for the counties to recoup the additional expense.”

Bergen also noted that the anticipated cost for 2017 will be the same as this year.
Bergen said top county officials have been meeting to discuss implementation of the new standards. “I would note that Judge Cassidy has been holding regular meetings to discuss implementation, which have been attended by County Manager Al Faella, some of our department heads and Sheriff Joseph Cryan.”

Union County Sheriff Joseph Cryan told LocalSource that the county is prepared to implement the reforms. “It’s a significant change in the criminal justice system, and we plan on being prepared for it,” he said in a phone conversation.

Donnadio mirrored Bergen’s sentiments. “In the long run, criminal justice reform should help control long-term operating expenses at county jails by reducing the prison population,” said Donnadio. “However, it’s unclear how long it will take to realize any cost savings and, in the meantime, county governments across the state will spend substantial taxpayer dollars on hiring new staff and making capital improvements to implement the new law.”

According to Donnadio, the NJAC is urging state leaders to dedicate the funding necessary to implement the changes for the criminal justice reform. In addition, they are calling for the establishment of a state Assembly supported initiative — the County Government Criminal Justice Reform Administration Fund — which would make modest increases to certain criminal and civil court fees, and use funds gained to assist county governing bodies in the implementation of the reforms.

The NJAC is also calling for an appropriation in state fiscal year 2017 of $1 million per county dedicated for the courtroom facility and security improvements necessary to implement and administer the new laws.

Donnadio said that, although the new laws represent a positive change, the cost to counties has turned out to be more than anticipated. “In general, the new law is a fairer and more equitable administration of justice,” he said. “However, it’s going to cost more money than anticipated to implement and manage.

Donnadio also noted that New Jersey is a leader in reforming the cash bail

The state’s changes come about after a 2014 report released by the Joint Committee of Criminal Justice. According to that report, the average defendant awaiting trial spends 10 months in jail.