The state Commission of Correction estimated that could save each jail about $5,000 a year, though the 63 jails would still have to preserve prisoner access rights to legal materials.
That could be done through computer terminals with online access, similar to the approach in the state prison system.
Another alternative is submitting written inmate requests to nearby court libraries. That's current practice of six small jails that have waivers from the library requirement in Hamilton, Otsego, Delaware, Cortland, Orleans and Oswego counties.
"Under the new regulation, each jail must still provide access to legal materials to all inmates," commission spokeswoman Janine Kava said. "The significant change is that they are not required to maintain the library inside the facility, and the new regulation specifically allows for electronic access."
According to inmate advocates, the change will make it harder for inexperienced individuals to do research without being able to browse law books, especially where they have to wait three days to see if specific requests to court libraries produce the documents they need.
"It's not comparable access to a law library in our opinion," said Jack Beck, director of the prison visiting project at the Correctional Association of New York. "These are not lawyers. It's going to make it nearly impossible for individuals who are not very sophisticated to do their research."
The commission proposal would let jails that choose to maintain a law library to pay the costs with profits from the commissary where inmates buy extra food, toiletries and some other goods.
The final rule, if adopted, would take effect May 18.