ALBANY — As jail populations continue to plummet across the state, New York’s governor is proposing to allow counties to opt into regional lockups instead of solely operating their own facility.
The legislation from Gov. Andrew Cuomo is one in a long list of policy proposals included within his state budget proposal, on which lawmakers continue to hold hearings this week.
The governor’s office says the legislation will allow counties to lower costs by not maintaining their own separate facility.
Newly released data from the state shows that New York’s total jail population plunged by 30% from January 2019 to last month. Most of that decline has come in the past few months, something reform advocates say is tied to the rollout of a state law that eliminates cash bail for the wide majority of misdemeanors and nonviolent crimes.
Savings from jail operations, they said, can be used for other things like mental health services and drug treatment. The bail law, which went into effect at the beginning of the year, spurred a fierce political debate that pitted criminal justice advocates against prosecutors and law enforcement officials.
The state’s new data offers the first look into how inmate population figures have shifted since the bail law’s implementation.
Among jails outside New York City, the state has seen a 25% drop in the inmate population since 2010, according to data from the state’s Division of Criminal Justice Services.
That has left some rural county jails with only a few dozen inmates to look after. In Orleans County, there was an average of 41 inmates in their facility last month, the data showed.
Herkimer County, which covers a portion of the Adirondack Park, only had an average of 27 inmates at their facility in January, according to state data.
Herkimer County Administrator Jim Wallace said they plan to open up a brand new jail later this year — a project he says was forced on the county by state government.
The old jail didn’t have a large enough recreational yard, he said, and Herkimer County had to board out too many inmates when the jail population was higher.
But now with lower inmate figures due to the bail law, he said the county could have saved millions by simply adding amenities to the older jail and forgoing the construction of a new one.
“You can see our frustration,” he said.
He says the saved money could have gone to roads, bridges or a tax cut.
“That’s a lot of money for us,” he said.
The statewide jail population outside New York City has been on the decline for years now, but reform advocates say the changes to bail reform have accelerated that trend. That movement has outpaced tepid declines in jail populations nationally.
The national trend was outlined last year in a report from the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics.
State lawmakers overhauled bail rules to tackle what they saw as the old system’s unfair bias against poor defendants. Poor people charged with minor offenses would languish in jail for not being able to afford bail, reform supporters argued.
Law enforcement and prosecutors argue the changes jeopardized public safety, saying defendants released under the new law will be free to commit new crimes.
There was a statewide average of 14,983 inmates held in jail facilities in January, compared with 21,406 people during the same time a year before, according to state data. The data shows a 40% decrease statewide among inmates who were waiting for for arraignment, trial or sentencing, along with parolees who have been arrested for a new crime.
The data did not specify how many inmates are specifically held in pretrial detention.
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