by Katherine Landergan of Politico
10/04/2016 05:36 AM EDT
A coalition of counties will take legal action against the state’s sweeping bail reform policy, just months before the changes are set to go into effect.
The New Jersey Association of Counties plans to file a complaint with a state board by mid-October, arguing that bail reform is inadequately funded. The state board, known as the Council on Local Mandates, has the power to strike down a law if it lacks the proper funding.
Counties have until January to implement reforms that aim to substantially restrict cash bail in the state. Bail reform was signed into law in August 2014, and later approved by the voters as an amendment to the state constitution. The reforms will move the state from a cash bail system to one in which judges will hold swift pre-trial hearings to decide whether to release the defendant.
New Jersey has identified some funding for bail reform, but John Donnadio, executive director for the association, said that county freeholder boards must dip into their budgets to comply with the new regulations. Advocates counter by saying the reforms will yield substantial cost savings.
Donnadio said bail reform is estimated to cost each county anywhere from $1 million to $2 million per year. The counties will need to hire new staff and pay for videoconferencing technology for the additional hearings. Additionally, they must shoulder the costs of keeping courthouses open on the weekends.
“We support the concept of bail reform,” he said. “But we’re just looking for relief from the Legislature, whether from an appropriation or delaying the policy for a year so we can get a better handle on what the costs are.”
He said that county budgets are even more restricted now because of policies like the 2 percent property tax cap. The association has pushed for legislation that would allocate funds for the reforms.
State Sen. Steve Oroho introduced a bill to give $21 million to the counties for bail reform, and Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly sponsored legislation to hike court fees and dedicate those funds to the county costs. But neither proposal has made much movement in the Legislature.
Brian Murray, a spokesperson for Gov. Chris Christie, said he could not comment until the counties file a formal complaint. A spokesman for the attorney general’s office – which is tasked with studying the implementation of bail reform – declined to comment.
But Roseanne Scotti, New Jersey state director for Drug Policy Alliance, argued against this idea that bail reform is inadequately funded. She said counties will experience a cost savings as a result of housing fewer prisoners. A study conducted by DPA found that about 12 percent of the state’s county jail population was custody because they were unable to post a bail of $2,500 or less.
“There’s been a lot of talk about the upfront costs and not about the cost savings,” she said. “You’ll have fewer people in jail, so you’re not housing, feeding, or not providing medical care for them.”
Senate President Stephen Sweeney said in an interview that he does not think the counties’ claim will work, given the massive reduction in the prison population. For example, Sweeney said that Gloucester County expects 80 fewer prisoners each day.
“The savings are far going to outweigh the costs, these are startup costs,” he said.
The counties’ claim is also complicated by the fact that bail reform is now written into the constitution. The council does not have the authority to rule on whether an amendment is unconstitutional, so the counties will argue that the legislation to enact the amendment was overreaching, and did not allocate enough money to carry out the reforms.
In April, the board notably invalidated a law that would have required municipalities to equip police with cameras. It found that the law’s funding source, a $25 surcharge on DUI convictions, was not enough to cover the costs of the cameras.