Changing conditions call for changes in plans.
Whenever the economy heads south, businesses cancel projects that no longer make sense, lest they get stuck with potentially bankrupting losses. This is a sad time, for example, for those who put big money and time into new or expanded restaurants that soon faced strangling COVID restrictions.
The ground started shifting under Cumberland County’s plan to build a new county jail almost from the start.
In 2017, New Jersey led the nation in the most important criminal justice reform in decades, eliminating bail in most criminal cases and instead using a public safety assessment to help determine which defendants to hold until trial. Two years later that had led to a substantial drop in defendants held in county jails.
Cumberland broke ground in December 2019 on the $65 million jail project. By July, county freeholders were expressing doubts about the project. The inmate population had been reduced further by COVID-related releases, down to 232 from 310 last year. And pandemic closures were sinking the local economy and reducing county revenue.
Within a month, county officials decided to pursue scrapping plans for a new jail and closing the old substandard jail, sending its inmates to facilities in other counties. Freeholder Director Joseph Derella said that would save the county an estimated $8 million to $10 million in the first year over building and operating a new jail — and save millions more each year thereafter.
This is exactly the kind of needed and prudent response to the pandemic and reduced revenues (largely from state-ordered shutdowns and restrictions). A vaccine won’t bring the coronavirus under control for at least months, and the national recession already underway will be a challenge for Cumberland County residents and taxpayers for at least a couple of years.
Ending the jail project and outsourcing inmate housing to other counties would have some downsides, of course.
One is that as many as 121 county employees, nearly all in its Department of Corrections, could lose their jobs. The county will help displaced workers find employment. With three state correctional facilities and one federal prison in the county, the prospects for experienced county jail staffers might be better than elsewhere in New Jersey.
The Cumberland County Improvement Authority already has spent $13.3 million on the jail project, getting as far as completing the foundation for part of the building. Making the most of that work will be a challenge. One idea floated is a possible community center.
But these disadvantages are more than offset by the major savings for the public and its taxpayers over decades to come. The priority of governments is to provide services at the lowest reasonable cost, not to pay for jobs that are no longer needed and don’t make fiscal sense.
Cumberland officials deserve much credit for holding to this core principle of good government.