State allows Suffolk to put off construction of $112 million county jail
New York State has agreed to let Suffolk County put off indefinitely construction of a second phase of its new Yaphank jail, slated to cost $112 million, County Executive Steve Bellone will announce Thursday night.
Bellone, who is up for re-election this year, will disclose the agreement in principle with the state Commission of Correction as part of his annual State of the County message in Hauppauge.
"This is an enormous victory for Suffolk County," Bellone said. "Spending hundreds of millions to build a new jail would be a travesty for taxpayers." Bellone in 2013 had lambasted the first phase of jail, which cost $185 million, as a "Taj Mahal."
Bellone and Suffolk Sheriff Vincent DeMarco have lobbied Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and correction officials to reverse a decade-old state mandate to build space for an additional 360 jail beds. They argued that Suffolk has launched initiatives to curb recidivism and to deal with the 70 percent of inmates who are low-risk, pretrial detainees who are homeless, cannot afford bail, or need treatment or supervision, instead of jail.
Bellone aide Tim Sini said the extra jail space would be "an irrational use of public funds" since the number of inmates has dropped from a high of 1,783 daily average in 2011, to 1,320 in January. Wednesday, the jail population was 1,349, 75 below state-approved capacity.
Bellone aides said the reprieve from having to construct more jail space will help tight county finances. They said that over 20 years, Suffolk would save $58 million in interest costs and $140 million to $164 million on staff to operate the proposed facility. Administration aides noted the $112 million for the jail project accounts for a quarter of the $435-million three-year capital program for countywide projects.
Under the new agreement, Suffolk will be able to immediately halt planning and design for the new jail construction, for which $2 million has been budgeted this year. The correction commission will do a new assessment in the next three to five years to determine if Suffolk needs more jail space.
"The Commission looks forward to working with Suffolk County . . . to finalize the agreement, which has been designed to ensure twin goals: that the county has jail facilities . . . it needs and that those facilities comply with the state's standards," said spokeswoman Janine Kava.
DeMarco said he believes the commission's reversal was spurred in part by Cuomo's efforts to reduce capacity in state prisons.
DeMarco also expressed confidence that Suffolk will keep jail numbers down and avoid the need for new construction.
"Crime has been falling for a decade, but the jail population has only started to fall," DeMarco said. "It took a while for our new programs to catch up."
The correction commission ordered Suffolk to build a new jail in 2004, after a decade of granting waivers that allowed double bunking and the use of common areas to relieve chronic overcrowding. At the time, the commission complained the county held as many as 500 inmates over jail capacity of 1,350 at its jails in Riverhead and Yaphank. The commission later allowed the county to split construction into two phases to ease the cost burden.
Legislative Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory (D-Amityville) called the agreement "wonderful news. It will not only save taxpayers hundreds of million of dollars" but deal with poorer low-risk defendants who "just don't have as little as $25 for bail."Legis. Kevin McCaffrey (R-Lindenhurst), GOP caucus leader, agreed: "It's the culmination of efforts by lot of people to get a good result."