Op-Ed: Ocean County Sheriff Candidate Claims GOP Patronage in Jail System
In the space of one generation, Ocean County government has made two strategic mistakes that continue to plague us.
The first occurred in the 1980s when the freeholders, took responsibility for the county jail away from the sheriff, a separate and distinct elected office, and appointed a warden. That change made great political sense for the freeholders; it allowed them to directly exploit the patronage possibilities provided by the personnel needs of the county jail.
However, it made no sense for county tax payers. Now, sworn law enforcement officers once employed by a single entity were split between two separate county agencies. That doubled at least some administrative costs and took an even greater toll in a less obvious manner. Sheriff’s officers and corrections officers could not readily fill in for each other to ease increases in work load. That meant that demand for officers in one section invariably resulted in overtime, which for both agencies cost taxpayers $4 million in 2011.
The second major misstep by the freeholders was more recent. Rather than build a new jail removed from commerce and population centers, they chose to expand the existing county jail at a cost of $64 million in downtown Toms River. That might seem innocuous until you consider that the Ocean County Jail is hardly an overnight drunk tank, and Toms River is not exactly Mayberry RFD.
In reality, like facilities in othercounties, the Ocean County Jail is under contract to the state to house very serious felons. It is in practice a maximum security facility whose prisoners reside just yards from businesses, homes, the Ocean County Library, and in a particularly troubling instance, from Toms River High School South. More than 50 windows of the new jail directly overlook the school’s athletic field.
New Jersey’s more urbanized counties have no choice but to locate such facilities in populated areas. That is not the case in Ocean County, the state’s second largest by area. There are much better remote locations where unforeseen events such as riots and escape attempts can be dealt with more effectively at far less risk to the public.
Both of these blunders on the part of the Ocean County Freeholders might have been avoided had there been a strong, independent sheriff in office at the time they were decided. That was clearly not the case.
Our current sheriff, who was first elected in 1985, was the first to administer what was essentially half a department. He accepted the county takeover without comment then and has not spoken against it since.
Can these mistakes be rectified?
In the case of the new jail: not immediately. We cannot walk away from a facility that already cost $64 million and into which the freeholders are considering pouring yet more money. But even this newly renovated structure has a half-life. It won’t last forever. In the meanwhile, we need to spend as little as possible on it and begin to plan for the day when it can be replaced in a far more practical location.
The first step to solving the second problem, the prison location, is to correct the first one. The Ocean County Freeholders, must return control of corrections to the Office of the Sheriff where it traditionally belongs and where it worked well for over 100 years.
Under the Sheriff, corrections would not vie for attention among so many other freeholder concerns like public works, the county college, the library system, parks and recreation, senior services, education, and much, much more. According to the county government web site, the freeholders oversee almost 80 distinct departments.
In 2011, the freeholders spent almost $100,000 on a staffing study for corrections, the sheriff and the office of the prosecutor. One of the first recommendations of the study completed by the PFM Group of Philadelphia and the Executive Research Forum of Washington, D.C. was that the County Jail be folded into the sheriff’s office.
The first step to right these two wrongs is to elect a new sheriff, a sheriff who will act on immediate issues, such as the bloated department payroll of approximately 180 employees of which 54 earn more than $100,000 a year, the excessive overtime, and the poor use of 120 qualified officers who now stand guard at the county courthouse entrances, serving paper, and shuttling prisoners between cell and courtroom. Those sworn officers, who have full law enforcement authority across the entire county and even on the Garden State Parkway, could be, and indeed should be a serious, crime-fighting resource for Ocean County.
More strategically, the new sheriff should advocate for the common-sense return of county corrections to the office of the sheriff and for the eventual move of maximum-security penal facilities from downtown Toms River to a more sensible location in an unpopulated area.
I would like to take on those jobs with the help of voters like you who have had enough one-party, good-old-boys rule in Ocean County.
My name is “Bob” Armstrong and I’m running for Ocean County Sheriff.
George “Bob” Armstrong is a career law enforcement professional who has worked for the U.S. Treasury Dept., the FBI, the N.J. Div. of Criminal Justice, the N.J. State Commission of Investigations, and with U.S. military intelligence. He has been an Ocean County resident for 60 years.