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A law that will allow New Jersey judges the right to deny bail to high-risk defendants accused of first-degree crimes next year will cost counties — and likely taxpayers — millions of dollars to enforce, local county officials say.

While the officials laud the legislation’s intentions — to keep violent defendants in jail before trial and to allow nonviolent defendants charged with third- and fourth-degree offenses quicker bail hearings — they worry about how they’ll pay for it.

New Jersey residents voted in favor of the Bail Reform/Speedy Trial Act in a 2014 referendum to amend the state constitution. The law goes into effect Jan. 1.

While several officials have said they applaud the effort to change the bail system in New Jersey, they also said the amendment will be very expensive for all 21 counties.

Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson said the new law will cost $2.5 million a year. The extra costs stem in part from the Prosecutor’s Office requesting 10 additional assistant prosecutors and the Sheriff’s Office requesting seven extra officers to comply with the requirement that offenders have a court hearing within 48 hours of being arrested, including on weekends.

“The bail-reform process has become just another example of actions taken by Trenton special interests that result in very significant increased financial costs to county taxpayers,” Levinson said in a statement. “Instead of thinking of ways to lower taxes, Trenton continues to create situations that further increase our tax burden.”

Cape May County Freeholder Director Jerry Thornton said his county will also need to hire more staff.

“It’s going to be costly,” he said.

John Donnadio, executive director of the New Jersey Association of Counties, said county officials across the state have been trying to find ways to pay for the amendment. He said the expected $50 million it will take to implement the reforms will most likely fall on the residents of New Jersey in the form of a tax increase.

“There’s really no other alternative,” he said, noting that the counties have been working over the past year to find ways to mitigate the costs. “How else are we going to pay for it?”

He said counties could save costs by having video hearings instead of bringing every person into the courtroom. But he said that still doesn’t address the concerns of buying new fingerprinting technology, which is required under the amendment to help identify offenders and the risks they may pose.

“It doesn’t cost much to house an inmate,” Donnadio said. “It’s the staff that costs money.”

Cumberland County Freeholder Director Joe Derella said that in seven to 10 years, the county could see some savings. However, the expenses up front for new fingerprinting technology, equipment for video hearings and possibly expanding the courtroom far outweigh any savings down the line.

Overall, Derella said it will cost the county anywhere from $2 million to $3.2 million to comply with the amendment.

“The jails are still going to be open seven days a week, 365 days a year,” he said.

The costs to implement the reforms came as a surprise to some lawmakers. Assemblyman Chris Brown, R-Atlantic, said the amendment was presented as a way to cut costs throughout the state, not increase them.

“This is another example of the state breaking its promise to the public, who approved the ballot question because the state promised us bail reform would save county taxpayers money,” Brown said in a statement. “But instead, the state is adding another financial burden to Atlantic County’s families and retirees who are already struggling to pay their bills so they can keep their homes.”

Assemblyman Vincent Mazzeo and Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic, who voted yes along with Brown, did not respond to requests for comment.

But costs aside, many officials in New Jersey think the concept of bail reform is a good idea.

“It was a great idea,” Derella said. “It’s fair for the people who are incarcerated to have a speedy decision. I just don’t know how much the cost was thought out.”

Contact: 609-272-7260

Twitter @ACPressDeRosier

Copy desk chief / comics blogger

Print Director

Press copy editor since 2006, copy desk chief since 2014. Masters in journalism from Temple University, 2006. My weekly comics blog, Wednesday Morning Quarterback, appears Wednesday mornings at PressofAC.com.

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