Cuomo opens door for counties to share jails

Cuomo

ALBANY — A measure tucked into Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s $193 billion budget proposal would amend state law by allowing contiguous counties to share jails.

The New York State Association of Counties urged the governor’s office last November to give counties the option of sharing jails with their neighboring counties. The Cuomo administration had previously showed no interest in the idea but now sees it as a way to help make counties more efficient.

But there’s a wrinkle: the advocacy group for county sheriffs argues the jail-sharing concept is badly flawed and won’t accomplish what its proponents say it will.

“This would create a lot of problems for the sheriffs, as well as problems for the inmates, their families, the courts and lawyers,” Peter Kehoe, director of the New York State Sheriffs Association.

Relatives of prisoners, Kehoe said, would have to travel greater distances for jailhouse visits. Transporting inmates from jails outside of the counties where a prisoner is facing charges to courthouses would result in new burdens for the courts and the counties, he added.

“When we’ve looked at this, it hasn’t generated any savings,” Kehoe said. He called NYSAC “short-sighted” for endorsing the measure and suggested that if savings was the goal, counties could be allowed to share governments.

“If we don’t need the county unit of government for jails, do we need it for anything else?” Kehoe asked.

New York’s County Law requires each county to maintain a jail. The local correctional centers are overseen by county sheriffs, who are elected independently of the county legislatures that set county budgets.

In a new report responding to the Cuomo budget, NYSAC welcomed the push to give contiguous counties the option of sharing jails. The measure could help counties “realize significant savings” as county jail populations decline across New York, the association said.

NYSAC was also bullish on having counties get new flexibility in determining minimum staffing levels at the jails. The staffing mandates are based on the number of beds in each facility.

So even as jail populations fell in the aftermath of controversial updates to the state’s bail law, counties realized no significant savings with their personnel payrolls.

County jail populations outside of New York City fell from 15,446 to 8,068 — or 47.8% — from December 2016 to September 2020, according to the Cuomo administration.

“Yet staffing levels have changed little, declining only 5.5% in the same period,” said Freeman Klopott, spokesman for the state Division of the Budget.

Klopott said Cuomo’s proposals “recognize this precipitous decline and will let counties share jail facilities and give counties and sheriffs more flexibility over staffing while maintaining critical health and safety.”

Following the closure of the antiquated Greene County Jail in Catskill in 2018, local officials looked into the idea of having a shared jail with nearby Columbia County.

But the idea was shelved after state officials advised the County Law would not allow for such an arrangement. Greene County has since financed the construction of a new 64-bed jail with a $39 million bond.

Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at jmahoney@cnhi.com.

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