New Yorkers who complain about the state’s propensity to push cost down to local property tax bills often talk about schools or Medicaid.
Yet when it comes to passing down the buck, there are other issues that get ignored or just aren’t widely understood.
One of them: The cost of county jails.
It’s easy to see why. We all want the bad guys caught. But few of us pay attention to where those criminals wind up.
Of course, we property taxpayers pay for a jail in every county. These local jails house defendants awaiting trial and those with a jail sentence under a year (inmates with larger sentences go to state prisons).
Now try this fact on for size: Currently 19 county jail facilities are being built or expanded across the state at a cost estimated by the New York State Association of Counties (or NYSAC) of about $1 billion. In the Finger Lakes region, Allegany and Livingston counties are in the process of construction. Monroe County just finished a multi-million jail expansion in 2004. (Check out the NYSAC report on county jail construction and page 7 for background).
This jail construction comes even though total numbers of inmates in all facilities – state and local – have dropped over the last ten years. From April 1996 to May 2006, the inmate population in state and local jails dipped 8 percent to 93,000. The problem is that the numbers in county jails have actually risen in that same time period (from 14,100 in April 1996 to 16,600 in May 2006). Why? Theories include a slow judicial process that keeps the accused in jail longer and the inability of the state to take on those ready for their prison system.
What this means is local jail overcrowding in many counties. And when that happens, counties often send prisoners to neighboring facilities. This “boarding out” of inmates means money too, from the county sending the prisoners to the county that takes them. Rensselaer County, for example, has $2.55 million budgeted for inmates to spend time in other correctional facilities.
The boarding out option doesn’t sit well with the agency that oversees jails and prisons – the state Commission of Correction (a three-person board that’s appointed by the governor).
The commission wants counties with crowded jails to expand the space. To commission officials, there is no argument. State law demands that a county maintain a jail that is sufficient to hold its prisoners. (Go back to that NYSAC report and pages 9-10 for the position as stated by James E. Lawrence, Director of Operations for COC).
Not all counties share that interpretation, such as Herkimer County, which is seeing overcrowding in its aging jail. The commission told the county it will not be allowed to board out prisoners to other facilities long term and that it needs to build a new jail. The commission threatened to pull waivers it was giving to Herkimer County to exceed jail capacity in their current facility.
Herkimer County believes the costs for a new jail are too high. And Herkimer County’s attorney, Robert Malone, opined recently that state law only requires the county to have a jail, not that it be adequate to hold all prisoners (see page 1-2). Last week, the Commission of Corrections gave Herkimer County more time to either rehabilitate its current jail or build a new one.
What’s clear is that county leaders are often at odds with the state Commission of Corrections.
A couple of years ago, Tompkins County agreed to build a new 104-bed facility. The Commission of Correction said that the number of beds is not enough to accommodate future growth of inmate population. Lawmakers don’t buy this position and backed off building an even larger jail, which would cost more than $20 million. The commission pulled the variances. And now Tompkins County is seeing the cost of boarding out inmates rise.
In Dutchess County, there is a political debate about building a new jail. But County Executive William Steinhaus said part of the reason for overcrowding is . . . New York State. It sends some state parolees to local jails and will sometimes keep those who could be transferred to a state prison in the local jail facility. And, the state pays a rate that covers only about a third of the county’s cost for housing that parolee.
New York State did increase the rate daily rate it pays to counties for housing state prisoners and parolees from $34 to $40 a day. That still comes up short of the more than $100 a day the counties spend per prisoner.
All this proves that the current policy of incarceration needs an overhaul. State policymakers on this topic and county officials need to tackle a number of outstanding issues:
- How can counties move those awaiting trial quicker through the system?
- How can the state move faster on getting those ready for state prison out of the county system?
- Should the rate the state pays the county to house their inmates be raised again?
- What about consolidation of jail facilities? Tompkins County has raised the idea of building a joint jail facility with neighboring Cortland County (See the minutes of the July 5 Tompkins County Legislative meeting, more specifically the report from the Public Safety Committee). The New York State Association of Counties says that it is permissible under state law. Does the state agree?
“That sharing is happening in other areas across the state,” said NYSAC spokesman Mark LaVigne. “It’s not happening with jails.”
The bottom line desire of counties is simply this: More flexibility from the state Commission of Correction when it comes to the size of jails and how inmates are managed.
In an election year when candidates are tripping over themselves to support relieving the burden on local taxpayers, doesn’t such flexibility seem a rather reasonable request?