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NY State should drop demand for more Suffolk jail cells

The Suffolk County Jail in Riverhead is seen

The Suffolk County Jail in Riverhead is seen here on Feb, 2, 2006. Credit: Newsday / Daniel Goodrich

The closer Suffolk County comes to being forced by the state to build another jail, the clearer it becomes that the facility and its massive expense are unnecessary. The number of inmates has trended downward for years.

Suffolk opened a modern 420-bed addition to its Yaphank facility last year. That brought the county's prisoner capacity up to 1,544. And the county has state-granted allowances, called variances, that permit it to host about 400 more prisoners.

Yet in 2014, Suffolk averaged only 1,350 to 1,400 prisoners a day, according to Sheriff Vincent DiMarco, with a high of 1,550. In 2013 the population averaged 1,600 and the high was almost 1,700. But the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision doesn't care about the facts or the pattern. The state has demanded that Suffolk keep planning to build more unnecessary capacity, ordering that the county provide another 360 beds.

That will cost taxpayers $2 million in design fees budgeted for this year and $110 million for construction over the next three years -- for a facility that might never be needed and certainly won't be necessary anytime soon.

The decline in jailhouse population isn't due to luck. Rather, it is part of a welcome local and national trend of decreasing crime that is likely to continue. At the same time, the way the criminal justice system handles defendants yet to stand trial is also changing.

In Suffolk, one of the biggest improvements is a growing program for supervised release of suspects awaiting trial that is far cheaper and more sensible that holding them. About 70 percent of the jail population fits into that category, and more than 30 percent of this group has a bond of less than $10,000. Jail and county officials and penal experts agree that when prisoners are assigned a bond of less than $10,000, it generally means they are not serious flight risks or dangers to society. These suspects sit in jail not because they are dangerous, but because they are too poor to post bond. The cost to the taxpayer exceeds $200 a day. In the past year, Suffolk has greatly enhanced a supervised release program for such inmates that costs only $15 a day and lets those accused of low-level crimes -- drug possession, failure to pay child support and other misdemeanors -- live at home, work and care for their families. That and other diversion programs are getting addicts into treatment rather than jail and putting young people in positions to be rehabilitated rather than hardened.

Statewide, jails are being closed as criminal populations decline and lawmakers balk at funding them as jobs programs. Nationally, there is a movement toward loosening both the laws and sentencing guidelines for drug possession, especially of marijuana. New sentencing guidelines is likely to drive jail populations down even further.

It's always possible that the day will come when Suffolk County could need more jail capacity. For the foreseeable future, it does not. The state ought to acknowledge this and free the county from this construction mandate.