County jail overcrowding a fulsome problem

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The overcrowding in the Dutchess County jail has local legislators caught in a quandary: Expand the jail or build a new one?

Two studies of the issue completed in the last year reached the same conclusion: the current plan of contracting out for inmate housing is expensive and counterproductive, so alternatives to incarceration should be explored along with a possible new jail or an expansion of the current one.

The most recent study, completed by RicciGreene Associates, an architectural firm specializing in justice buildings, estimated the price of a new jail would be $165-$200 million. But according to both studies, a new facility would still be better in the long run than expanding the current facility, even though the latter would be a less-expensive short-term solution.

According to the first study, a “Needs Assessment” report from the county’s Criminal Justice Council last November, the daily inmate population in recent years has exceeded 500 even though the jail has capacity for just over 250 inmates.

More than 200 inmates are being housed in other facilities across the state each day, to the tune of almost $8 million per year, according to estimates from the County Executive’s office. According to the council report, $6.5 million was budgeted in 2011 for housing inmates out of the county, and the number has only increased since then.

In addition to the cost of housing out inmates, the council report points out that sending inmates away from Dutchess County prevents their getting access to rehabilitative programs that could reduce the recidivism rate.

Overtime for jail workers is another huge cost—more than $4 million in 2013 so far. It’s incurred, according to a news release from the County Executive’s office, because of the increasing amount of supervision required for inmates who have mental health or substance withdrawal issues.

In an Aug. 9 press release, County Executive Marc Molinaro pointed to the excessive costs as a key reason for planning for a new jail.

In June, the county legislature authorized a $1.2 million bond that will pay for the “project definition phase” study, which would be a “comprehensive assessment” of the county’s criminal justice system needs. The study will include analysis of how, with a new design, the jail’s staff-to-inmate ratio could be increased from the current 1:1.3, which is one of the highest in the state, to 1:3, which the county executive’s news release said had been achieved in other facilities across the state.

Ben Traudt (R-Red Hook), who voted for the bond, told The Observer that the study should give county legislators a better sense of what the most-cost effective and efficient option for the overcrowding issue would be.

“We haven’t committed to an option yet, we’ve just committed to finding a solution,” he said.

However, not all legislators agree that studying the feasibility of a new jail is the best solution to the current problems.

Joel Tyner (D-Staatsburg) and Debra Blalock (D-Milan) voted against the bond, along with four other legislators. “I objected to the $1.2 million bond because it is extremely costly to the taxpayers for yet another study that the county has already done multiple times and neglected in favor of inaction. We need to stop delaying and start doing,” Blalock told The Observer.

Some opponents suggest that a new jail will not address the underlying reasons people are incarcerated and investing in alternative incarceration and youth outreach programs instead would be more effective in decreasing the jail population.

Tyner, who represents the towns of Clinton and Rhinebeck, told The Observer he believes that there are many populations in the jail that could be housed elsewhere within the county or in alternative programs in order to alleviate the need for an expanded facility.

According to estimates he has received from jail administrator George Krom, approximately 50 women, 50 mentally ill inmates, 20 youths and 70 state parole violators are in the county jail right now, he said. If alternative programs for these people were pursued, he said, the decrease in the jail population would alleviate the need for housing-out.

Blalock agreed. “There have been methods identified in various studies and other facilities that could be implemented at low cost to the county that could begin to ease overcrowding right away and reduce recidivism. We should be utilizing any that are appropriate at this time,” she said.

County Comptroller Jim Coughlan has also voiced concern about taking on such an expensive project, because of the county’s current budget shortfall.

“I am concerned that a jail project costing almost $200 million will raise our annual debt service payments to almost $30 million per year. Currently, the county debt service is $18 million per year, and for every dollar it goes up, the county needs to take away a dollar from a department or raise taxes,” he told The Observer.

Still, Coughlan believes a construction project is necessary. “I believe a brick-and-mortar project is vitally necessary to alleviate the county jail problem. I am hoping that a reasonable and fiscally sustainable, project is, ultimately, approved by the Legislature,” he said.

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