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Regional jail system eyed

Smaller county jail may result

By FRITZ MAYER

MONTICELLO, NY — “New York is the only state in the country in which each county is required to have its own county jail.” That bit of information, which was put forward by Leni Binder at the government center on January 8, has caused some sleepless nights for Binder and others officials as they struggle for a way to pay for the new state-mandated jail.

Causing even more consternation is the current economic crisis, which has wreaked havoc on the municipal bond market. So much so, that at the same meeting, Sullivan County Manager David Fanslau said, “If you were to try to sell bonds for the jail now, you would be unable to sell them.”

With negotiations for the site still in process, the need for the county to bond the project is still about a year away. But lawmakers are taking steps now to lessen the cost, which has been estimated at $75 million to more than $100 million.

One way to achieve a significant reduction would be if neighboring counties could set up a regional jail system. A preliminary study on the concept was performed by the Center for Research, Regional Education and Outreach (CRREO) at SUNY New Paltz. With relatively new jails in Ulster and Orange counties, the preliminary study found that there are enough beds in the region to handle the inmates here for some time to come. Therefore, the idea of a regional jail system might be workable.

But the concept would require a further $50,000 study to be certain. Such a study is proposed to be performed by CRREO, with assistance from the non-profit policy think tank Patterns for Progress.

A regional jail system would not relieve Sullivan County of its obligation to build a new jail, but it might allow the county to build a smaller, less expensive one. Binder, who is a member of the county’s jail committee, said if one jail could be set up to handle a specific group of inmates, for instance, females who are minors, then Sullivan might not be required to build a special section of the jail specifically for that group, as would otherwise be the case.

The Commission of Corrections (COC) in Albany has almost absolute authority over the size of the jail that the county will be required to build. Initially, the COC had determined that the county would build a jail with 402 beds. The county asked to be allowed to build one that was only 303 beds, but the COC would only compromise down to 350, with a price tag that is still considered unaffordable by the jail committee.

In the past, the COC told the county that the cost of the facility could not be the determining factor in the size of the jail. Recently, however, the economic landscape has changed significantly, and county officials are hopeful that with a regional jail strategy, the COC will agree to the downsized facility.

Gerald Benjamin, director of the CRREO, said the COC policy of mandating that counties build jails based on county populations needed to be adjusted, given the economic hardship facing many counties in the state. Benjamin is sending the results of his findings to the COC in the coming days.

The legislators voted unanimously to contribute $2,000 to the larger study. Orange and Ulster are also on board and other participating counties may include Dutchess, Rockland and Greene. More distant counties, such as Herkimer, have also expressed interest.