Fix what is there

Camden County officials should put the brakes on their rush to build a new jail and hire private operators.

Instead, efforts should continue to reduce prison overcrowding — the heart of the problem — at the downtown Camden facility.

A consultant has already helped drive down the prison population by almost 20 percent with some basic recommendations to run the jail and courts more efficiently. In short order, the average inmate population has dropped from 1,800 to 1,460. There appears to be even more room for improvement.

Despite assurances by freeholders to take at least a year to study the issue, the county now appears poised to hire a private firm to build and operate a new jail.

The county mayor’s association voiced support for the plan last week. Recall that these are the same mayors who blocked earlier efforts to build a jail in a commercial strip near the suburbs.

Before spending millions in tax dollars to build a new jail, the county should continue to work with the courts to further reduce the existing population as it has been doing in recent months.

Through added reforms like electronic monitoring and work release programs, the county could likely trim the population down to its operating capacity of about 1,200 inmates, a more manageable population.

Granted, even with fewer inmates, serious problems remain at the poorly designed 22-year-old facility, which has been deemed inhumane and unsafe. But many of those issues could be resolved as the inmate population drops.

The freeholders are moving in the right direction with a proposal for a drug- and alcohol-treatment center for nonviolent offenders. That would help reduce the recidivism rate and crowding — and produce big cost savings.

Corrections officers, who have threatened legal action to block privatization, believe the jail can be renovated for much less than a new facility. That may be a better way to go. They also raise legitimate safety concerns that could arise if a private firm brings in cheaper workers to run the jail.

Privatized jails have yielded mixed results. At Pennsylvania’s only privately run jail in Delaware County, seven inmates died in 2005 under the watch of its former operator, Geo Group. The company paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to settle wrongful-death lawsuits. A new firm now runs that jail.

New Jersey has no privately run county jails, although some counties house inmates in private facilities.
Before Camden County spends millions on a new jail, it should continue to reduce the crowded conditions in the current facility. That’s producing real results that could save taxpayers more than switching to a private facility.