The state Commission of Correction has voted unanimously to end variances Wednesday that had allowed Suffolk County to house 374 prisoners beyond its state-approved capacity.
Commission staff said Suffolk jails, which had 43 percent of all state waivers, are operating at 86 percent of capacity and have been "pretty much steady" throughout the year. As of Friday, the jail population totaled 1,355, compared with a daily average of 1,783 at the high point in 2011, county officials said.
"Eighty-six percent for a system with two facilities is considered by the commission as more than manageable," Brian Callahan, commission counsel, said at a June 16 meeting in Albany.StorySuffolk puts off $112M prison upgradeEditorialEditorial: Jail decision a win for Suffolk taxpayersLetter to EditorLetter: Improve visitation process at jail
The county "doesn't appear to use the overwhelming majority of these variances," Callahan said. "It seems they want to hold them in reserve in case for some reason there's a need."
Deputy County Executive Jon Schneider acknowledged that the county had sought to keep all its variances, and it can operate without them temporarily.
He said the county may need to apply for new variances in the next several months because it is renovating eight older jail dormitories with 384 beds in Yaphank and must move the inmates into the jail temporarily.
The commission earlier this year agreed to allow Suffolk officials to delay planning and construction of a $112 million second phase of a new jail in Yaphank to house 360 prisoners.
The state agreed in principle to a five-year delay after the county created new programs to divert inmates and cut recidivism. As a result, the jail population dropped significantly, county officials said. Those programs came after Suffolk in 2013 opened the $185 million first phase of a new county jail in Yaphank with a capacity of 320.
"The fact that we don't need the variances speaks louder than anything that we've been making the right decisions," Schneider said.
Michael Sharkey, sheriff's chief of staff, cautioned that the county may have to seek new variances in coming months due to the ongoing dorm renovations.
Sharkey said the county had sought to keep its existing variances for flexibility in classifying and dividing prisoners by factors including sex, age and seriousness of crimes.
While the state and county have been negotiating a protocol to assess the need for future jail facilities, no final agreement has been reached. Schneider said the recent commission ruling on variances is likely to spur renewed talks to hammer out a final deal in the coming weeks.