Hudson County Executive Tom DeGise announced on Friday that the county would initiate a “Path to Exit” from its contract to hold detainees for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE).
The detainees are awaiting hearings on alleged violations of federal immigration laws.
Religious leaders from Jersey City and elsewhere filed suit against the county in Superior Court in late August, claiming the county violated the state’s Open Public Meetings Act when the freeholders voted in July to approve the 10-year contract.
The freeholders had originally announced they would delay the vote, then suddenly reversed themselves and put the measure up for a vote without allowing members of the public and immigrant advocates time to comment. Many activists demanded that the county use an opt-out clause to void the contract.
The “Path to Exit” would have the freeholders void the 10-year contract, then vote on a new contract that would phase out the detainee program over a two year period, with the goal of having no detainees housed in the jail by the end of 2020.
The jail was built to house about 2,000 inmates. Bail reform and other programs have caused the criminal jail population to fall to about 400. The contract with ICE, at $120 per day per detainee, had partly been used to offset the reduction of prisoners at the jail because the facility remains fully staffed. There are currently about 800 detainees at the jail. The deal was expected to provide an estimated $35 million a year to the county.
Correctional officers unions and others have raised concerns about doing away with the ICE contract because it would likely lead to significant layoffs.
To compensate for the loss of the detainee population, the county will seek to make agreements with other entities, such as the New Jersey Department of Corrections to house state prisoners in Hudson County instead of immigrants. By seeking agreements to house other prisoners, the county might be able to maintain the current work force.
Freeholder Bill O’Dea warned the county that it may have to reduce staff in the future anyway, because there is a trend away from incarceration and towards providing other means of detaining prisoners such as house arrest and electronic monitoring.
The freeholders anticipate voting on a resolution at their Sept. 13 meeting that would prohibit ICE detainees to be housed at the jail beyond 2020 “without freeholder consent.”
The plan will also direct additional funds from the contract to be spent on services for ICE detainees during this transition period. Presently, free Legal Services are provided to all detainees for their civil detention cases.
The amount, and into what areas those dollars will go, will be worked out in future meetings with the administration, members of the freeholder board and advocates for the detainees. A survey of detainees conducted by advocates may be authorized as part of the plan.
“Just a month ago, I did not see a path that would allow us to move forward on a path to exit,” said County Executive DeGise. “I’m pleased that after what I have heard from state and federal leaders, I believe we have a consensus on how Hudson County can exit the contract in a responsible manner.”
Freeholder Board Chairman Anthony Vainieri, who attended all of the discussions with County staff and the advocates, welcomed the Path to Exit plan.
“Over the last month the county executive, my fellow freeholders, state and federal leaders and local advocates for detainees have worked constructively to make this exit plan possible, and I am proud of the work that has been done to arrive at this point,” said Vainieri. “I will urge my colleagues to support this plan because it represents a humane, reasonable approach.”
One of the most prominent elected officials critical of the county’s contract with ICE, Hoboken Mayor Ravi Bhalla, welcomed the announcement from the county executive.
“With this action, the county executive and the freeholders have begun the work of dealing with this issue in keeping with our values, while dealing with the difficult realities of governing at the local level, and I applaud that,” said Mayor Bhalla.