Lawmakers Say $40M Boost to State Budget if Prisons Were Consolidated

Colleen O'Dea | June 25, 2019 | Politics
Pointing to empty beds and cells, underused jails, legislators argue they can balance budget without new taxes. Murphy dismisses scheme as ‘magic math’

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One of the ways the New Jersey Legislature plans to balance next year’s budget without raising taxes on millionaires or gun permits is with $40 million in savings from restructuring the state’s prisons. Officials in the Murphy administration termed that scheme “magic math.”

New Jersey’s prison population has been declining as a result of a host of initiatives the state has implemented, among them the expanded use of drug courts and more robust re-entry services meant to keep former inmates from winding up back in prison. But it’s been a decade since the state has closed a correctional facility, leaving vacant beds scattered throughout the prison system. Legislative sources say the state can turn the unused capacity into savings.

But the administration said it is unrealistic to expect the state to be able to commission, complete, and implement a prison restructuring study in the next budget year, which begins in six days. And there is no way to guarantee the effort would yield $40 million in savings next year, given the complexities prison consolidation would entail.

“It remains a mystery as to how the Legislature came up with these savings,” said Jennifer Sciortino, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Treasury.

Adding prison reform to budget language

Lawmakers inserted language in the state budget, calling for the state corrections commissioner to submit “a plan for restructuring of State correctional facilities … for the fiscal years 2020 through 2022.” The report would go to legislative leaders and the Joint Budget Oversight Committee by October 1.

“The plan shall have as its goal a reduction of State expenditures in Fiscal Year 2020 of at least $40 million,” according to the added language.

Legislators set priorities for achieving those savings:

  • Increase by 1,000 the number of community-release placements for inmates who have demonstrated good behavior and have less than 18 months left on their sentences. According to the budget proposed by Gov. Phil Murphy, 2,657 people were in community placements in the 2018 fiscal year, with 2,635 estimated in the current and next fiscal year.
  • Stop using the Vroom Central Reception and Assignment Facility as the central processing unit for all adult males.
  • Consolidate youth correctional institutions and close the Albert C. Wagner Youth Correctional Facility in Bordentown. Opened in 1934, the facility had a population of 632 at the start of this year.
  • Determine other space consolidations, facility closures, operating efficiencies, and cost reduction measures, including a plan to eliminate unnecessary overtime expenses.
  • Squeezing the DOC

    It was clear from legislative hearings on the DOC’s budget that some Democratic lawmakers were interested in consolidating or closing one of the youth correctional facilities and in curbing overtime spending, which is projected to total $38 million by the end of this fiscal year.

    But acting Corrections Commissioner Marcus O. Hicks wrote that the department would have to hire an additional 354 guards to eliminate the need for most of the more than 700,000 hours of overtime worked by custodial staff this year. Another 75,200 hours in overtime were worked by food service, maintenance, and other civilian staff. The salary and benefits for those additional guards would cost more than the overtime, he wrote: $40.7 million in salary and benefits, versus $23.7 million in overtime.

    To an assemblyman’s question about consolidating Wagner and the Garden State Youth Correctional Facility, which is adjacent to Wagner, given that their combined occupancy was just 69 percent on average this year, Hicks wrote that the department has not done a feasibility study on consolidating its three youth correctional facilities but that doing so might prove difficult.

    “At this time, it is difficult to determine the cost savings for depopulating the Albert C. Wagner Youth Correctional Facility, as this facility currently supplies steam and potable water to GSYCF and operates a sewage treatment plant that serves the surrounding community in addition to these two (2) facilities,” he wrote.

    Cashing in on fewer prisoners

    Legislative staffers said data showing a continuing drop in the state’s prison population indicates that there must be opportunity for restructuring. Over the past five years, they said, the number of inmates has dropped by about 6,500. And criminal justice reform that essentially ended the use of cash bail has meant county jails have unused beds. They added that the closure in 2009 of Riverfront State Prison in Camden yielded an annual savings of about $43 million, so expecting a $40 million savings is being conservative.

    Murphy’s budget proposal shows a total prison population anticipated in the next fiscal year at 16,673, which is slightly higher than the budget’s estimate for the current year and about 300 higher than the prison census on January 2, 2019, according to data posted on the DOC website. Even the higher budget count indicates the system is at less than 84 percent of its capacity of close to 20,000 beds.

    But a full study of how to realign prison populations to save the maximum amount based on open beds, available staff, and other considerations would take time. Administration officials said they read the legislative proposal to hire a consultant, conduct a feasibility study, and consolidate facilities in one fiscal year, dismissing it as “completely unrealistic.” It also does not account for the initial costs, including fixed and capital needs, that go with the potential closure of one facility and moving inmates to other locations. There could also be costs due to negotiated labor agreements.

    Legislative staff said that Hicks’ predecessor had told lawmakers previously that the department was studying consolidation. A DOC spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.

    Still, the budget language — should Murphy agree with it — does give the DOC some wiggle room. It states that the department would be able to spend on operations next year the difference between $40 million and whatever savings it can achieve.

    And legislative staff point out that they do not need the $40 million in savings to balance their budget proposal. Murphy, though, has said the lawmakers’ plan relies on “voodoo math,” counting on revenue projections that, in some cases, are more optimistic than those made by his administration or the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services.