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Arresting the cost of jails

The Suffolk County Jail in Yaphank.

The Suffolk County Jail in Yaphank.   Credit: Doug Kuntz/Doug Kuntz

Running the local county jail is a high-stakes challenge.

The correction responsibilities of sheriffs’ departments are enormous: They must safeguard the community from people suspected or convicted of crimes. They must shield inmates from illness and self-harm, and from each other. And they must protect correction officers. Even the most violent suspects accused of crimes by the state are housed in county jails pretrial, alng with less dangerous suspects and those sentenced to incarceration for less than a year.

It’s costly. But changing practices should mean less expense for local governments.

Since 2010, New York’s prison population and Nassau and Suffolk counties’ jail populations declined steadily, mostly due to fewer arrests. This year, those reductions deepened dramatically, thanks to bail reform that let more of the accused out, and a COVID-19-induced willingness to release more people.

From July 2019 to July 2020, the population of the Nassau County Jail declined from 1,031 to 580, a 44% reduction. In Suffolk, the jail population sank from 1,052 to 474, a 55% drop. And in both counties, jail populations had already decreased 30% to 40% over the decade prior to the bail reform that took effect in January.

There ought to be significant savings from these population reductions, and an increased ability to provide services that fight addiction, poverty and recidivism. So far, on Long Island, the jails have a good start on improving the programs, helping prisoners prepare for a return to the outside world with help on resumes, applying for Medicaid and other programs, lessons on how to be productive and law-abiding citizens, and even clothing for future job interviews.

But they have made very little headway on cutting spending.

The Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department budget, $147 million in 2010, grew to $177 million in 2020, with about $118 million going to personnel costs for the jail. The county has about 800 correction officers, which is not a big drop from past years, and Sheriff Errol Toulon says that rules by the state Commission of Correction that set staffing regulations by beds rather than inmates, a no-layoff clause and a complex combination of three facilities serving different needs make cutting hard.

In Nassau, the numbers and challenges are similar, and although layoffs are contractually allowed, Sheriff James Dzurenda says none are planned. The total departmental budget for 2020 is $153 million, and is set to decline only 5% next year.

With state regulations and inflexible labor contracts, the arguments of both sheriffs that truly large savings can’t be realized from the reductions in populations is understandable. But that approach must change.

The state must stop demanding jails be staffed excessively when there are empty beds. No-layoff clauses have to go, because jails are not jobs programs. And the fresh eyes of outside experts need to be utilized to redesign these correction programs and facilities in a way that cuts costs and increases efficiency while continuing to provide needed services.

— The editorial board