When the plan to build a new Suffolk County county jail was first proposed about 10 years ago, the political and economic landscape in the county, as well as the nation as a whole, was dramatically different from what we have today. Even back then, when Suffolk County was running budget surpluses, opponents of the new jail project made good arguments that it was ill-conceived, from both budgetary and policy standpoints.
In retrospect, they were right.
Suffolk County is now facing budget deficits that may exceed $200 million in 2014. At the same time, county officials are considering moving forward with Phase II of the new jail in Yaphank, at an expected cost of $100 million, totally paid for by Suffolk taxpayers without any state or federal subsidies. It is madness.
During the past several years, analyses and studies by criminal justice experts have highlighted our flawed approach to crime and punishment nationwide. Accounting for population, the rates of incarceration in the United States are some of the highest in the world. This high rate of incarceration is largely created by our decades long “War on Drugs” and a get-tough-on-repeat-offenders strategy that mandated prison sentences for defendants regardless of the severity of their actual crimes. The result for states and other municipalities has been soaring expenditures for corrections and other related costs of criminal justice systems. These policies have had a crippling effect on state and local county budgets.
However, recent studies on a national level have indicated that this trend is being reversed. Most states have gotten smart about the cost of incarceration and the need to reduce jail populations through less costly alternatives. Even here in New York State, the prison population has decreased during the past few years, with state prisons being closed and costs statewide being reduced. In contrast, Suffolk County has been moving in the opposite direction, with more and more jail cells being built or proposed and increased numbers of people being incarcerated. It has to stop as soon as possible, or it will send this county into a fate similar to that of Nassau County, or worse, Detroit.
Suffolk County Sheriff Vincent DeMarco has been pressing forward with a plan to reduce the inmate population through less costly alternatives to jail and diversions from incarceration that could eliminate the need for the $100 million Phase II of the new Yaphank jail. Suffolk County legislators and taxpayers should heed his call.
By expanding current jail diversion programs through the Probation Department and the courts, along with implementing new, cost-effective initiatives to divert low-level offenders from incarceration, we can significantly reduce the inmate population here in Suffolk County without jeopardizing public safety. These alternatives to incarceration programs can save taxpayers both the cost of expanding the Yaphank jail, as well as the annual increase in operating expenditures associated with running and staffing this new jail, which would include both hiring more correctional officers and increases in overtime pay.
Suffolk County needs to get in step with the rest of the nation and avoid the costs associated with high rates of incarceration.
Jerry Bilinski is a case manager with a non-profit group that advocates for incarcerated and mentally ill people. He lives in Riverhead.