Moving on a trend, 2 more N.J. counties agree to share a jail
“The future of jails is more of a regional model than one that is county-by-county.”
By Richard Cowen
Bergen and Passaic are the latest counties in New Jersey to share a jail, having reached an agreement that allows Passaic to house from 500 to 700 of its inmates in the Bergen County Jail in Hackensack each day for the next 10 years.
Passaic County will pay Bergen $104 per inmate per day, under terms of a 10-year shared shared services agreement that was ratified by commissioners in both counties last week. The Bergen County Jail is newer and less crowded than the Passaic County Jail, which was built in 1954 and over the years became notorious for its cramped and squalid conditions.
“Our jail currently has about five years of useful life left in it,” said Theodore “TJ” Best, a Passaic County commissioner who was instrumental in the merger. “At some point in the near future, Passaic County was going to need a new jail, and that would cost hundreds of millions of dollars. I think saving money is important, but it’s secondary to providing a better environment.”
Although the agreement is designed to empty out the Passaic County Jail, there are no plans for layoffs. With no reduction in force, the savings to taxpayers will be minimal, at least in the first few years. Bergen County will absorb about 50 Passaic County corrections officers onto its payroll, and the rest will be redeployed, either for transporting inmates to court hearings, or onto patrol, Best said.
“We’ve guaranteed everyone their job and their rank,” Best said. “We won’t have to bond for a new jail. And in the interim, we can put more officers on the street for community policing.”
Passaic County has already transferred approximately 250 inmates to the Bergen County Jail. As of Tuesday, 436 inmates remain locked up in Passaic County, according to the sheriff’s department.
The Bergen County Jail has a capacity of 1,152. As of Tuesday, there were 554 prisoners at the Bergen County Jail, county spokesman Derek Sands said.
To free up more space at the jail, Bergen County is working on a separate agreement to send its female inmates to Hudson County.
“There is a whole trend toward regionalization of jails,” Sands said. “The future of jails is more of a regional model than one that is county-by-county.”
Sussex and Hunterdon counties send their prisoners to Morris. Gloucester County sends its inmates to jails in Burlington, Cumberland and Salem counties. Union County earlier this year entered into an agreement to send its prisoners to the Essex County Correctional Facility.
These arrangements don’t always work. When Mercer County tried to transfer its inmates to Hudson, a state judge blocked the move after defense attorneys argued that the 130-mile commute to the counties made it difficult to meet with their clients.
In that case, Superior Court Judge Stuart A. Minkowitz ruled that jail mergers could not come at the expense of an inmates’ right to a fair trial, as guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution.
The Bergen County Jail, located on River Street in Hackensack, is about 10 miles from Paterson, so commuting is not an issue. And conditions there are generally better.
“This will be better for the prisoners,” said Miles Feinstein, a veteran defense attorney who works courtrooms in Bergen and Passaic. “The inmates in the Passaic County Jail are always complaining to me about the conditions there. Passaic County doesn’t have the space.”
Over the past decade, Passaic County has spent millions of dollars fixing up the jail. That public investment—in a new ventilation system, electrical and plumbing, and a medical clinic—grew out of a court order meant to resolve a class-action lawsuit in 2008 by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Seton Hall University Center for Social Justice on behalf of inmates.
Best said the Passaic County Jail will stay open, at least for now. Bergen County anticipates that it will receive nearly $19 million in revenue in 2022, the first year of the 10-year contract.
“I welcome this new agreement with the County of Passaic, which will soon allow us to maximize the footprint of the Bergen County Jail,” said Bergen County Sheriff Anthony Cureton. “Benefiting both the taxpayers of Bergen and Passaic counties, this shared service agreement provides adequate housing and court access in proximity to Passaic County, while maintaining care and custody in Bergen County’s accredited corrections facility.”
Passaic County Sheriff Richard H. Berdnik said the merger would allow him to put more officers on the street. “This agreement will not only add efficiencies, but will ultimately enable the Sheriff’s Office to put more police resources on the streets of our county,” he said.
The per diem rate is scheduled to rise to $112 per inmate per day when the contract expires in 2031.
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Richard Cowen may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.