Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy

Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy Credit: James Carbone

By Sept. 10, Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy will have a choice to make: Hire 50 new correction officers or risk losing state authority to pack 500 extra inmates into the county's jails.

Either outcome will be expensive for a county looking at a two-year, $150-million budget shortfall. Levy faces a series of state-mandated hiring deadlines for 200 new correction officers to staff Suffolk's $157-million Yaphank jail, due for completion in December 2011.

Should he miss the first, on Sept. 10, state officials said they may seek to rescind the county's permission to house 511 more inmates in the two existing jails than otherwise allowed.

Potential consequences of not hiring the officers range from Suffolk having to pay millions to house inmates in jails outside the county, to the state Commission of Correction forbidding Suffolk from opening its 317,000-square-foot Yaphank facility on schedule next year.

Levy refuses to commit to the mandated hiring and declined to state how many new officers he plans to authorize, or to disclose when he'll decide.

"We are, in fact, hiring corrections officers and will hire more moving forward, but will continue to lobby the state to ease up on its burdensome mandate," he said in a statement.

For now, the early September deadline looms as the commission - which in March gave Suffolk a six-month hiring extension - expects the county to begin the first of four classes of 50 new officers. Levy hasn't committed to the September class.

If the September class doesn't begin, Thomas Beilein, Commission of Correction chairman said, the state might revoke Suffolk's permission to house the extra inmates, which officials call "variance beds."

That would force Suffolk to pay steep costs to outsource the inmates to Nassau, New York City and other areas.


Jail already overcrowded

"They have more variance beds than any other county in the state," said Beilein, who has characterized the overcrowding at Suffolk's existing Riverhead jail as "extreme." "If the milestones for hiring are not met, the commission would reconsider the granting of variance beds."

The commission says the Suffolk County Jail is 34 percent over desired capacity, the largest percentage of any large jail in the state. The Livingston County jail in western New York, which has fewer than 100 inmates, is 60 percent over normal capacity, according to the commission.


Sheriff has hiring plan

Sheriff Vincent DeMarco, who had submitted a hiring plan to comply with the state wishes, doesn't have ultimate control over the hiring of new officers. That lies with Levy, who is pushing the state to lower the mandatory staffing levels.

"We've received what amounts to an informal plan from the office of the sheriff and we're told it's not operative because the Suffolk County administration has not made any firm commitments to implement it," Beilein said back in March.

The state commission holds enormous leverage over Suffolk. In March, it granted the county variances to house 511 more inmates than the approximately 1,300 that would be typically allowed at its Riverhead and Yaphank jails. The commission will continue to review the county's variances - which account for about half of all variances issued statewide - when the new classes are scheduled to begin in January, May and September of 2011, Beilein said in an interview last month. Each class takes 12 weeks to complete.

Levy spokesman Dan Aug said the county will lobby the commission and other state officials "to every extent possible" to lower the number of correction officers required to open the jail.

Levy said, "It had been represented to us that the state-of-the-art architectural design the state was promoting would decrease the number of officers needed. We will continue to urge a reduction in officers through double-bunking of inmates and the use of video surveillance at various jail locations."

If the state commission rescinds the variances, some Suffolk inmates would be sent to jails in other jurisdictions, at the cost of about $100 per day each. But that doesn't include overtime costs associated with paying Suffolk officers to transport them to nearby jails that will take them, in Nassau, New York City and upstate.

Beilein has shown recently that he can be serious about staffing requirements. In February, the commission stripped Erie County of variances for 54 inmates after Erie officials refused to act on state mandates for hiring and other clerical issues.


Counties eventually comply

"Traditionally, when the commission has reduced or pulled variances, they [counties] eventually hire more officers," Beilein said.

"What I'm very afraid of is that he [Levy] plays a game of chicken with state corrections," said Presiding Officer William Lindsay (D-Holbrook). "If we don't have enough corrections officers to open the new jail when it's ready, we're going to really look stupid. To have it sit there empty would be embarrassing."

Vito Dagnello, the president of the Suffolk County Correction Officers Benevolent Association, said it's a "50-50" proposition that Levy approves the state-mandated new hires. "Right now we're waiting to see what happens with the 50 in September that are slotted to be hired," he said.

Suffolk officials are generally well-thought-of in state circles, Beilein said. With the third-largest local correctional system in the state - after New York City and Nassau County - the sheriff's department has experience handling crowded jails.

"Historically Suffolk County has done well," Beilein said. "There's an element of trust that has been established between the county and the Commission of Corrections that has not been jeopardized."

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