Rick Brand is a longtime Newsday reporter who writes about politics and government on Long Island.
Suffolk County has opened a new, state-mandated jail costing $185 million, and is facing the prospect of having to spend another $100 million to build more jail space.
Sheriff Vincent DeMarco says it's all unnecessary.
"We don't need more jail cells in Suffolk County," DeMarco wrote to top county officials earlier this month. "What we do need is to fix . . . what is broken."
DeMarco said the county has failed to implement enough programs to divert nonthreatening inmates from the jail system.
"The need for this expensive project could have been avoided had there been a more concerted effort . . . to explore and develop innovative and effective alternatives to incarceration," DeMarco wrote. "If . . . we learn from past mistakes, we can . . . greatly reduce the need for yet another expansion of jail beds."
DeMarco, in office since 2006, issued his warning to County Executive Steve Bellone and the 18 lawmakers not long after Bellone had labeled the new 440-bed maximum security jail in Yaphank a "Taj Mahal."
Bellone has put a bill before county lawmakers to spend $3.7 million for design work for an additional 440 mandated jail beds. County lawmakers have twice delayed voting on the funds and will hold a hearing this week on whether the project can be scaled down or stretched out.
The state ordered Suffolk in 2004 to build a new jail to ease chronic overcrowding, but allowed the county to split construction into two phases. Until the first phase opened earlier this month, the state had authorized variances to exceed capacity by 531 prisoners. That saved Suffolk $107 million it would have had to spend to send inmates outside the county. The state has reduced the number of variances to 373, but could withdraw them if the county fails to build the other 440 cells in Yaphank.
Legis. Wayne Horsley (D-Babylon) said DeMarco's comments have piqued interest in light of Suffolk's budget shortfall, projected at $250 million through 2014. "We're talking a lot of bucks, and if we can find a way to not spend, it's a big deal," Horsley said.
Legis. John M. Kennedy Jr. (R-Nesconset), legislative minority leader, said he would consider all alternatives to new construction. The state mandate "is a looming specter like Darth Vader . . . I'm no fan of any new jail construction," Kennedy said.
DeMarco says many of the 40,000 inmates who pass through the jail system annually are nonviolent and shouldn't be incarcerated -- especially at a cost of $200 to $250 a day. Many are awaiting trial, can't afford bail or are held on traffic issues, DeMarco said.
Janine Kava, a spokeswoman for the state Commission on Corrections, said the effect of alternatives was taken into account when the state ordered Suffolk to build a new jail. Suffolk has four alternative programs and one Family Court pilot project with Nassau, said Kava. Together, the initiatives diverted more than 10,000 people from the Suffolk system last year.Nassau's programs reduced its jail population by 2,069. Suffolk got $800,000 of the $5.2 million available statewide, while Nassau received $600,000.
DeMarco said there are other successful programs the county could use but no one has analyzed their effectiveness.
"Clearly problems exist," DeMarco said in his letter. "But I strongly believe they could be resolved quickly through improved communications."
Bellone said he agrees with DeMarco that the need for new beds can be reduced. "He gets it and is a good partner," said Bellone, but agencies are "not speaking together effectively" on the issue and need to understand that jail costs affect them all.
DeMarco called it "imperative" that Suffolk's Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, a county committee with representatives from all law enforcement groups, "intensify its focus" on incarceration alternatives. The county then must "make a strong case" to the state Commission on Corrections to delay new jail construction while new initiatives are implemented and results measured.
"We have a very small window right now," DeMarco said in an interview. "But if we don't do something, we're looking at spending $100 million we don't have."