For Some In Bergen County Longterm Unemployment May Mean Long Term Jail - Bergen Dispatch

The Bureau of Labor Statistics released its monthly unemployment report on Friday, March 7 and although the national unemployment rate remained steady at 6.7% the bad news was the number of long term unemployed (those jobless for 27 weeks or more) increased by 203,000 in February to 3.8 million nationwide.

The percentage of jobless Americans who have been unemployed for longer than 6 months remains close to historic levels. By comparison, before the “Great Recession,” the highest long-term unemployment rate ever recorded since 1948 was 26 percent.

These long-term unemployed are looking for work in an economy that still has nearly 2 million fewer jobs than when the “Great Recession” started in December of 2007. This jobs deficit leaps to over 8 million when accounting for growth in the potential labor force, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

Back in December over 90,000 people in New Jersey saw an end to their unemployment with the expiration of federal emergency benefits. This was the highest share of any state.  Another 89,000 New Jersey residents are also set to lose their benefits during the first six months of 2014 as 63 weeks of unemployment is shrinking to 26 according to a report published by the House of Representatives' Ways and Means Committee.

For the Bergen County Jail this means big business.

In Bergen County being unemployed may get you thrown in jail. Bergen County residents who are jobless and have fallen behind on child support or alimony payments face indefinite incarceration in the Bergen County Jail’s “Work Release” program.

Brought before a judge every two weeks unemployed parents incarcerated in the “work release” program are required to report their efforts in finding a job. Being unemployed in Superior Court in Bergen County is considered to be by choice and puts you in contempt of court.

For the long term unemployed this may mean a long term in jail.

Parents incarcerated in the Bergen County Jail’s “work release” are required to pay the County of Bergen $ 10.00 per day for “room and board” - $50 per week.  For some an additional $70 per week is due to the County for a GPS tracking bracelet.

Kevin Macfie, a Bergen County father, has been incarcerated over 400 days since he was arrested for child support arrears in January 2013. Macfie spent another 344 days incarcerated between December 2011 and November 2012. Macfie has only been a free man for 55 days in the past two years and during part of that time he was the subject of an arrest warrant which is automatically issued when two support payments are missed.

Macfie was being held in the Bergen County Jail for over a year with the court demanding he pay $7,500 to be released. Recently his “condition of release” was reduced to $1,000 which Macfie does not have. “It might as well be $10,000” Macfie told the Bergen Dispatch. If he could find employment Macfie would need to save the $1,000 plus pay his weekly support amount of $284 plus the work release fees before being released.

“I have not seen my son in years” Macfie told the Bergen Dispatch “I don’t expect to ever get out of here. I lost my car, my apartment and all of my belongings. I wouldn’t know what to do if I did get out.”

Jorge Reynaldo, a Bergen County father of three daughters spent 6 months in the Bergen County Jail’s general population after refusing to sign the “work release” agreement.

Reynaldo, a former commodity broker who earned at one time over $250K per year lost his job to technology when the trading floor was automated. Jorge, then, 48 years old with no college degree, found himself unemployed and ordered to pay $4300 per month in spousal and child support.

This was not Reynaldo’s first experience with the Bergen County Jail; in 2011 he spent 10 months in the “work release” program when over 80% of his gross earnings were taken by the jail under the terms of the “work release” contract. In 2013 Reynaldo refused to sign that contract.

Despite his refusal to “opt” in to the work release program Jorge was ordered in to the ‘work release” by Judge Ronnie Jo Siegal. Siegal told Reynaldo that he would have to comply with the work release program because it was now a “court order”.

To add to Reynaldo’s punishment Siegal also ordered to wear a GPS ankle bracelet so she could track his efforts to find work.Beyond the parents held in Bergen County Jail’s N5, the “work release” housing unit, dozens of other Bergen County parents are held on “house arrest” and required to wear a GPS ankle bracelet.

Detainees must only leave there homes to attend work or search for work and must spend their nights and weekends at home or face a violation which can lead to incarceration.

Another Bergen County man, a 54 year old father of seven children has three of those children living with him, one is with the mother and three are emancipated. Despite the fact that he cares for three young children he has been arrested three times since 2011 and has spent as long as sixty days in the Bergen County Jail for failing to make alimony payments of almost $700 per week.

While caring for his three children their mother pays no child support to him and repeated motions filed with the court to seek child support and modify his alimony payments have been denied.

Enforcement hearing held in a make-shift courtroom inside the Bergen County Jail

 “Look For Work” Release

Released from jail each morning at 5:30am, before breakfast, unemployed inmates hit the streets hungry, with no money and expected to find a job. For those who are lucky enough to find work this is not enough to secure their release. Inmates are expected to work, comply with the work release hours and surrender their paycheck to the work release program.

One inmate who is working and is ordered to pay just $75 per week toward support arrears surrendered his paycheck of $539 to the work release staff. The $75 had already been deducted by his employer from his net pay yet ten days later he received only $189 back from the Sheriff’s office - $350 taken without explanation.

Another inmate who spent six months looking for work while in the “work release” program managed to find a job. Surrendering his paycheck weekly, the jail deducted his child support payment, work release fees of $50 per week and $70 per week, the additional fee for an ankle bracelet he is required to wear. The deductions left him without even the bus fare to get to work.

“It’s not easy employing these guys” his employer told the Bergen Dispatch. “I feel bad for him and have to buy lunch and lend him money to get to work, he is a good worker but most employers would not want to deal with this.”

One inmate when told he would be remanded to work release told the judge he did not want to be in work release. “I have no money” he told the judge, “all I can do is sit at the bus stop all day; I can’t afford to go anywhere”.

Fighting Back

In December 2013 the Bergen Dispatch reported that more than a dozen Bergen County parents being held in the work release program filed appeals contesting their incarceration. Those appeals made their way to the New Jersey Supreme Court and on December 6, 2013 Chief Justice Stuart Rabner issued the following order:

This matter having come before the Court on defendant's application for emergent relief pursuant to Rule 2:9-8, seeking a stay of the trial court's order of incarceration for non-payment of child and/or spousal support; and it appearing that defendant was represented by counsel; and defendant having asserted in an application for permission to file an emergent motion before the Appellate Division that "no ability to pay finding has ever been made in [this] case"; and a single judge of the Appellate Division having denied defendant's application for leave to file an emergent motion on short notice; and the undersigned having reviewed the papers submitted by defendant; it is hereby 

ORDERED that the trial court provide the following information to the Clerk of the Supreme Court no later than 4:00 p.m. on December 10, 2013: 

1. whether an initial hearing was held in connection with the order of coercive incarceration in this matter, at which time the court found, "before ordering coercive incarceration …that the parent was capable of providing the required support, but willfully refused to do so," Pasqua v. Council, 186 N.J. 127, 141 n.2 (200); and 

2. the order or statement of reasons from the hearing, if one was held, and it is further 

ORDERD that, if the trial court determines that no hearing consistent with Pasqua, supra, and Administrative Directive #15-08, was held in this matter, the trial court shall vacate that portion of the pending order that directs defendant's incarceration and shall release defendant forthwith, and the trial court shall schedule and conduct an appropriate hearing within thirty days.

Dated: December 6, 2013 - Chief Justice Stuart Rabner

 Having been denied the due process required by New Jersey law the Bergen County Superior Court released those defendants and the other parents held in the work release that same day.

In April 2013 the N5, work release, housing unit held 42 inmates and was at its maximum capacity, 60 more parents were incarcerated in general population waiting for a spot. On December 6, 2013 there was only one inmate left, Jorge Reynaldo. Jorge remained the only work release inmate for over two weeks.

“It was pretty strange being the only one in work release” Reynaldo told the Bergen Dispatch, “but it felt good knowing so many had been released”.

The Bergen County Superior Court had so matter-of-factly been incarcerating “deadbeat” parents that it actually refused to give them the required hearing under New Jersey law.

Mark Musella, one of the public defenders who is paid by Bergen County to represent inmates at enforcement hearings, told the Bergen Dispatch “I used to ask for ability-to-pay hearings but they told me to stop.” When pressed who “they” are Musella responded in a voice mail “I don’t ask for ability pay hearings because I was told that defendants must make a separate motion to request ability to pay hearings with notice to both parties. I advise defendants that they should make that motion.”

Immediately on Friday, December 6, Judge Gary Wilcox began telling parents facing incarceration that “this is now an ability-to-pay hearing”. Wilcox, along with Judges Siegal and Venezia have, since December, been conducting what they call an ability-to-pay hearing immediately when a parent arrested on a child support warrant first appears in court.

At a hearing witnesses are heard and documents presented but in Bergen County if you are arrested on a warrant for unpaid support you better bring your witnesses and documents with you to jail because your ability-to-pay hearing is – right now.

With little or no opposition from Public Defenders Mark Musella and Carl Losito the Bergen County work release population has begun to swell.

Round Two For The Parents

Meeting every morning wen released at 5:30am at the McDonalds on Essex Street in Hackensack inmate parents now being held in the work release start the day off with a brain storming session about what steps they could take to fight their incarceration.

A couple of appeals in late December were rejected by the courts as not being emergent. Permission to file an emergent appeal was the first step to getting the cases reviewed and without that permission an appeal could take six months or longer to be heard.

On February 24 Adnan Manla, a Bergen County father being held in the work release filed an application for permission to file an emergent appeal. That request was granted and on February 26 Mr. Manla filed an emergent appeal challenging Bergen County’s legal justification for his incarceration.

On March 5, 2014 Appellate Division Judge Ellen Koblitz ordered Manla’s release from the Bergen County Jail’s work release. Judge Koblitz’s order read:

“Any enforcement of Adnan Manla’s child support obligation, short of incarceration, may continue. Mr. Manla’s immediate release should not be delayed because of fees assessed for his participation in the work release program.”  

Mr. Manla, unemployed and deemed to be indigent by the court, challenged the order to incarcerate him as not being based on a proper finding that he has the required ability-to-pay the amount of money required by the court for his release.

Incarceration for failing to pay court ordered support is only permitted to be done to coerce payment from someone who has the ability to pay but refuses to do so. For Manla and the other unemployed parents being held for thousands of dollars in back support they lack the means to comply with the orders holding them in jail.

After Manla received permission to file his appeal another inmate, a 53 year old out-of-work mechanic filed with the court and received permission to file his appeal. That appeal is pending before Judge Koblitz and a decision is expected sometime next week.

On Monday several other inmates are expecting to file their applications with the Appellate Division. All are unemployed, have been deemed indigent by the court yet are being held in a court supervised job search program that far overreaches what New Jersey law allows the County of Bergen to do.  Breaking News - Law Suit Filed Over Bergen County Work Release ProgramA class action law suit was filed against the County of Bergen challenging the county’s practice of charging inmates in the Bergen County work release program a daily fee for room a...