After a dozen years of pressure from the state and federal governments to fix jail overcrowding, Cape May County is moving ahead with a new $37.4 million facility that will increase the county’s capacity to 320 inmates from 188.
When the holding areas and medical cells are included, the capacity would go up to 360, said Warden Don Lombardo.
It’s happening just as the state is pushing to reduce the number of people sitting in jail charged with minor offenses but too poor to make small bail payments, and to deny bail to serious offenders who pose a risk to the community.
Warden Don Lombardo said the Speedy Trial/Bail Reform effort, which will be fully implemented in January 2017, is expected to reduce county jail populations by 10 percent to 20 percent.
If bail reform has the expected effect, the county can expect to average 200 to 225 inmates a day, Lombardo acknowledged.
But he said excess capacity at the jail can be rented out for the going rate of $100 per inmate daily to other counties, to the Immigration and Naturalization Service or to the U.S. Marshall’s Service.
Cape May County freeholders awarded a $37.4 million contract for construction of the new jail on April 12 to Hall Construction Co. of Farmingdale, Monmouth County.
The current jail population is about 250 and seasonal highs can drive it as high as 350, said Cape May County Freeholder Director Gerald Thornton.
Lombardo said the jail has three people in cells intended as doubles, and is doubling up on singles.
“We do have rule exemptions from the state Department of Corrections for those areas of the physical plant,” he said. “I just reapplied for them.”
He said he stressed in the application that the county just awarded a contract for “a new jail to remedy the situation.”
New Jersey voters approved a constitutional amendment in November 2014, allowing some defendants deemed too high a risk to the community to be held without bail. Before that bail could only be denied to someone eligible for the death penalty, which no longer exists in New Jersey.
At the same time the state passed legislation requiring county prosecutors to get low-level offenders who pose little risk to the community out of jail as soon as possible after arrest. They must perform risk assessments on all those charged with crimes and arrange for the release of those that meet criteria, even if they cannot make bail.
The full requirements of the law take effect in January.
Atlantic County already made such an effort about eight years ago through its own speedy trial committee, said County Administrator Jerry DelRosso.
Before the committee, the jail population averaged about 1,150 a day, he said. It’s now about 700 a day, with a capacity of 914.
So Atlantic County is not expecting to see much change in its jail population next year, since it is already doing most of the things required by the new state law, he said.
The Atlantic County jail has been accepting some inmates from the state and neighboring counties in order to bring in some revenue to offset the costs of running it, said DelRosso.
Atlantic County now takes up to 150 female prisoners from Burlington County, and up to 25 female and up to 50 male prisoners from Gloucester County, he said. It also has a contract to house juveniles with Cape May, Cumberland and Salem counties, DelRosso said.
The Burlington County contract provides the most revenue, an estimated $2 million a year, officials said last June when the contract was announced.
Atlantic County is also participating in a five-county study of the possibility of a regional jail, with Cumberland, Camden, Burlington and Mercer counties. And DelRosso said the county offered to add onto its existing jail to accommodate Cape May County inmates several years ago.
“We made the offer, but they said they were going to build,” DelRosso said.
Cape May County’s $34.7 million bid award was the result of a rebid process, since the first request for proposals brought in bids of $44 million — considered too high by county officials.
So they changed the plans to one floor from two, and dropped one 64-cell block, said Thornton.
The new jail will be built at the county complex off Crest Haven Road in Cape May Court House on land adjacent to the existing jail, which was built in 1976, said Lombardo.
It will be built in 64-cell self contained sections.
The advantages of building a new jail include designing it for the way jails are run today, with greater use of technology, said Lombardo.
The addition of medical unit cells, which are absent from the current jail, will also save money in the long run, he said.
“We have a medical vendor who handles a lot of things,” said Lombardo. “We’re limited to sending people to the hospital. Where it becomes a cost burden because we have no cells in a medical unit, they have to stay in the hospital longer. They can’t come back as quickly.”
It isn’t just medical costs that are affected, he said.
“When somebody is in the hospital they usually have two officers with them,” Lombardo said. “That’s very costly.”
Another advantage will be having a juvenile unit that is completely separate from the rest of the jail, he said.
State law now requires not only that juveniles be kept from seeing adult inmates but also from hearing them too, Lombardo said.
“This one will be built for the future — the next 40 years,” said Lombardo. “We’ll see what happens with bail reform. The jail population could increase and decrease many times over that period.”