Editorial: Suffolk jail impasse calls for innovation

In the new Suffolk County Correctional Facility in In the new Suffolk County Correctional Facility in Yaphank, one correction officer mans this entire pod. (March 22, 2013) Photo Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams, Jr.

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With a projected $250-million deficit, Suffolk County cannot afford to build the additional $100-million jail the New York State Commission of Correction is demanding. And with a shrinking jail population and the new 420-bed addition to the Yaphank facility that opened in April, the county shouldn't have to.

To overcome this order to create another 360 beds, Suffolk is going to need newfound spirit of innovation and cooperation from judges and county and state officials.

The state's demands recently forced County Executive Steve Bellone to put $3.7 million in design fees back in the current budget and $50 million in both the 2015 and 2016 budgets for construction.

The county now has a capacity of 1,544 inmates, plus state-granted allowances, called variances, that let it host about 400 more prisoners. The state is threatening to withdraw those variances if Suffolk doesn't move ahead on the next jail. On Friday, the actual jail population in the county was 1,570. So almost none of the variances the state is threatening to withdraw are even being used. And the county's jail population could easily be even lower.

Prisoners awaiting trial who present no danger to the community are often held simply because they can't scrape together even the smallest bail. Many of them should be released on their own recognizance. Other inmates who would be better (and more cheaply) dealt with through a variety of alternative programs, from drug rehabilitation to monitored home arrest, are also languishing in cells.

The county needs to determine which alternatives work best and are most cost-efficient, then foster a coordinated effort by judges and parole and probation officials to use these alternatives. Suffolk needs to show it can make this happen quickly, and the state needs to give Suffolk the opportunity to do so. It's not just that Suffolk can't afford to build more prisons: It also can't afford to keep more people in prison when other options make more sense.

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