In "Jacket: The Trials of a New Jersey Criminal Defense Attorney," Attorney John Hartmann takes the reader into the New Jersey criminal courts, introducing characters and insider details on just about every corner of the justice system. The memoir centers on a client who Hartmann believes might be innocent, and in the excerpt below, he makes his way to the “Workhouse” to meet Nathaniel for the first time.
It was time to pay a visit to Nathaniel Smith at the Mercer County Correction Center.
The Mercer County Correction Center, also known as the Mercer County Workhouse, also known simply as “the county,” is the local jail. The Mercer County Correction Center is not referred to as “The Big House” and is certainly not called “The Poky.” If you refer to it by these antiquated names, correction officers, experienced lawyers, and inmates who have been “guests” at the facility will look at you like you have two heads.
In New Jersey, there are 21 counties. Each county is a separate government entity, which, among other government functions, has responsibility for running the courts. This responsibility includes housing inmates at a county jail, and so each county has its own jail. The standards for these jails vary. Among career criminals, it is generally recognized that the best New Jersey county jail to be housed in is Hunterdon County. The Hunterdon jail is small, clean, and well-run, and doesn’t have a lot of inmates. Hell, I could “build time there,” as some prisoners put it. From what I hear, the worst county jail in the state is the Passaic County Jail in Paterson.
Various types of inmates are housed in county correctional facilities. First, there are the defendants facing State charges, anywhere from drug raps to murder, who can’t make bail. Aside from “going out feet first,” one of two things can happen to them: They can receive a probationary sentence and eventually be released, or they can be sentenced to state prison. Those who receive a state prison sentence are moved from the county correction center into the state prison system and are no longer the county’s concern.
In addition to defendants facing state prison sentences, there are a number of prisoners who are incarcerated at county for relatively minor matters. Some motor vehicle violations can result in jail, for instance, including multiple convictions for driving with a suspended license. Men, and even the occasional woman, who owe child support are locked up and have to wait in jail until they see a judge. There are also a large number of inmates arrested on warrants issued when they failed to appear in municipal court to answer for motor vehicle offenses and minor criminal charges.
It always amazes me how some people simply ignore their requirements to go to court. When they are trying to avoid jail time, I can understand their dilatory ways, but too many just blow court off. Or they may have gone to court, pled guilty, been fined, worked out a payment plan—and then simply not paid, rather than going back to court to explain their financial situation to the judge. They fail to appear or fail to make a payment, and so a warrant is issued and the court suspends their driver’s license.
It always catches up with them. Typically, they’re stopped by the cops while driving, a warrant search is run, and the next thing they know they’re wearing cuffs in the back seat of a state trooper’s Ford. And they always seem to get arrested on a Friday, which means they often can’t bail out until Monday, thereby securing for themselves a wonderful weekend as guests of the Mercer County Workhouse. In many cases, they have warrants (also known as detainers) from other towns in the county, so if they cannot make bail they have to wait, sometimes for a week or even more, to talk to a judge. Some local courts have begun to talk to workhouse inmates via video, but in many cases, it still takes weeks to talk to the judge in order to work out a new payment plan or plead guilty and be released. An even bigger problem arises when they have detainers from other counties or even other states, often Bucks County, Pennsylvania, which is right across the Delaware River. Such a person might get stuck in jail for months, becoming a correctional nomad, transported from county to county while working out legal obligations that have accumulated over the years. It’s shocking the number of people walking around with warrants and even more shocking that it doesn’t seem to bother them. This is why prosecutors and defense attorneys joke that if it weren’t for people doing stupid things, none of us would have jobs.
The Mercer County Workhouse is located in the rural part of the county (yes, there are rural areas in New Jersey) in Hopewell Township. You get there by taking a rather pleasant and historic drive up Route 29, a bucolic two-lane road that hugs the Delaware River. Route 29 runs along the Delaware Canal, which was built in the middle of the 19th century by Irish immigrants. Along the way is Washington Crossing State Park, where General Washington and the Continental Army landed after crossing the Delaware before the Battle of Trenton. As you continue north, you’ll spot a large hill looming over the Pennsylvania side of the river, a stone tower resembling a medieval keep moored on its top. This edifice is Bowman’s Hill Tower, a lookout built during the Revolutionary War. I’ve often driven this road in the late afternoon, and as the sun begins to set and the silhouette of the tower catches my eye, I have the sensation of being in the Scottish highlands, an ocean away from Trenton.