There has been dramatic growth in the number of people held in local jails in New York State in the last decade, with the total capacity of jails in upstate New York and Long Island increasing by 20 percent, to a total of 19,984 beds in 2006. By the close of 2007, over 30 counties in New York State will have built some 6,000 new jail beds, 2,976 of which are currently either under construction or are in the planning stages. This construction has come at tremendous cost to the taxpayers of New York – an estimated $1 billion according to the New York State Association of Counties. In many counties, these projects have been the largest locally financed capital project in the history of the county. It has also occurred at the same time as the population of people held in state prisons has continued to fall.
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The growth in the number of people held in jail has not been caused by an increase in crime, as index crime reports decreased by 30 percent in the last decade in upstate and suburban New York overall. It has also not been caused by an increase in the base population, which increased by just 2.6 percent over this same ten year time span.
One major factor in new jail construction has been the State Commission of Corrections, a state agency appointed by the govenor that has been directly responsible for the size and scale of new jail construction in New York State. Although providing no financial assistance to counties building new jails, the SCOC has mandated the size and timeline of their construction and dealt financial penalties to counties who have chosen to pursue alternatives to expansion instead or do not otherwise comply.
County legislators across the state have voiced frustration with the Commission, claiming that these are unfunded mandates and that the agency is acting outside the scope of its regulatory authority. They maintain that the agency would better serve the counties by examining why jail populations are increasing and act to address those factors instead. Some of these factors include: arrest policies that cause more people to spend time in jail for low-level offenses, a rising number of people being housed in jail who are mentally ill, system inefficiencies that make it difficult for people to move rapidly through the justice system, local jails being used to hold people detained by the Department of Homeland Security’s Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the U.S. Marshal Service, and a lack of coordination between county and state corrections officials that leaves many people who have been sentenced to prison sitting in local jails.
The impacts of this jail expansion on New York State are significant. Economically, the cost of construction is estimated at $1 billion, causing property taxes to increase and cutting into county expenditures in other areas. Socially, the burden of new jail construction is disproportionately experienced by low-income communities of color, who form a disproportionate percentage of people being held in local jails. This disproportionate representation is due to racial bias at every stage of the criminal justice system, yet it has long term consequences for individuals’ employment levels and economic success. Finally, new jail construction poses a large environmental risk to upstate and suburban New York, with the United States Environmental Protection Agency having identified correctional facilities as a large, but frequently overlooked, environmental issue.
Given that jail expansion has such a heavy impact on the communities and taxpayers of New York State, all alternatives to expansion should be examined before any new construction takes place. To that end, the report endorses the following recommendations:
- The State Commission of Corrections should stop the practice of mandating the construction and size of correctional facilities in New York State;
- In place of mandates regarding new construction, New York State counties should begin “evidence-based planning” regarding needs for local jail capacity, based on a real assessmentof why increasing numbers of people are in jail and issuing recommendations accordingly; and
- New York State should institute contract controls to monitor how contracts are distributedand their impacts on taxpayers.
The issue of jail expansion in New York has to date been underexamined, yet the impacts are significant throughout the state. Failing to identify and address these impacts would be a considerable, and extremely costly, mistake.