When Suffolk County opened 400 new jail cells in Yaphank last year at a cost of $255.5 million, County Executive Steve Bellone lambasted it as a "Taj Mahal," and "terrible news for the taxpayers."
But Sheriff Vincent DeMarco warned that the only way to avoid spending another $170 million for an extra 360 state-mandated beds -- known as "Phase II" -- would be for Suffolk to overhaul the way it handles its nonthreatening, pretrial prisoners, the bulk of its jail population.
After a year of behind-the-scenes work, Bellone and DeMarco are now poised to ask the state Commission on Corrections within weeks for a "three-year reprieve" on new building, citing a dramatic drop in prisoners and plans to reduce it further. The two officials, without fanfare, already appealed in a letter to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo last month for his assistance in their bid.
The county's letter is "under review," according to a Cuomo spokesperson. However, Cuomo himself could be sympathetic, since he has eliminated 5,500 adult prison beds in 24 facilities across the state, saving $221 million per year.
At the heart of the county's plea is that its average daily inmate population has dropped from a high of 1,783 in 2011, to an estimated 1,435 this year, because of lower crime rates and steps it already has taken to provide alternatives to incarceration. That is the lowest jail population in at least a decade.
And once renovations to several older facilities are complete, the county will have enough capacity to run what had been chronically overcrowded facilities without the 374 variances that have allowed double-bunking for years. The county, which spent as much as $6.7 million only three years ago to send some prisoners outside Suffolk, expects to spend nothing this year.
In their letter, Bellone and DeMarco noted a state study on Suffolk's jail needs dates to 2004 when the "inmate population was on the rise and indeed it was not unreasonable to assume a continuing upward trend. However, the reduced number of inmates . . . should warrant reconsideration of the . . . beds the county must construct."
The timing of the request is critical because Suffolk is scheduled next year to spend $2 million to develop plans for the Phase II and has budgeted $110 million over 2016 and 2017 for construction.
"With the new investments we're making, we believe we can continue to drive the [inmate] numbers down and not only save the $170 million in what will be excess capacity, but the huge costs to operate that jail every year," said Bellone. A moratorium would let Suffolk prove its case.
Those investments include $500,000 in new spending next year for 16 new probation officers and investigators to expand their capacity to provide supervised release for prisoners who cannot afford even a $500 bail.
The budget also includes a psychiatric social worker in probation to deal with low-level prisoners with mental problems or drug issues who need treatment but cannot be released because they are homeless and need a supervised setting. There's another $500,000 for contract agencies to provide a wide range of services to curb recidivism and to create interactive maps so those released can find help and transportation.
The major push for these initiatives has come from DeMarco, who last summer became head of the Suffolk Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, and has gotten the group, made up of all the county's often turf-conscious law enforcement agencies, for the first time to focus on the high cost of warehousing minor offenders who often have other problems.
"A more rational approach to building jail cells is to invest in prevention . . . and alternatives . . . that would divert the mentally ill to more appropriate treatment settings," DeMarco said. "It costs us nearly $60,000 per year to incarcerate someone . . . [while] case management for mentally ill people ranges from $2,000 to $10,000 per person."
Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory (D-Amityville) said he was hopeful for a positive outcome: "Anything that keeps the public safe, provides needed services to make productive citizens and save taxpayers $170 million has got to be a good thing."