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Jail in a recession: the all-you-can-eat diet



It's like the Ice Storm all over again --- this time in public services.

            Yes, the county legislature restored some social-service funding to next year's spending plan. The restorations are connected to a hard-won but slight increase in the county property tax rate. The modest tax hike won't make up, though, for a decade during which the county kept the tax rate clinched tight, while tying a noose for some worthy programs.

            Thus the bottom line: Parts of certain programs could yet hit the dirt, like tree branches torn off by a terrible weight.

Take a set of programs that has been getting off the ground in recent years: Alternatives to Incarceration. The county's praise-worthy "ATIs" include pre-trial diversion programs, electronic monitoring devices to track people under "criminal justice control," drug treatment and mental health supports, and more.

            But the ATI line in the budget shows a lack of appreciation --- as with other social service functions in a time of deficits.

            According to county budget documents, the 2003 allocation for all ATIs comes to $2.33 million, down from $2.55 million in 2002. This wasn't a blip, either; the downward trend was already discernible. Consider that ATI funding stood at $2.66 million in 2001. Further drops could come, or the trend could be reversed through political action. But no matter what happens, the present impact of cuts is real.

            Pat Jackson, the new director of the Southwest Area Neighborhood Association (SWAN), certainly understands this. SWAN is doing its utmost to keep a program called "The Bridge" above water. Jackson describes the program as a "one-stop shopping center" with Narcotics Anonymous and other supports that keep substance abusers out of jail.

            But this fall, a ship in the night rammed The Bridge.

            "They cut us $10,000," says Jackson of the county budget. "We have a $113,000 budget, so we have to look at other sources of funding," she says. "I'm just happy that they didn't cut us $50,000; then I couldn't operate." She adds that she's already found $3,000 to make up for some of the cut. But it will be necessary, she says, to scrimp on supplies and literature so core functions --- that is, human beings --- will survive. "I've got to leave my staff alone," she says.

            "We save the county and city a lot of money," Jackson says. "I would say we save at least $2,000 per person," she says. "If you put the main focus on treatment and prevention, you can cut down the need [for expanding the jail]. I believe in treatment instead of incarceration."

            The county has demonstrated some commitment to treatment and other alternatives. But it's giving other signals, too. Some of these signals come from a county worksite easily --- even unavoidably --- visible from South Plymouth Avenue and I-490: 425 new jail cells and ancillary facilities scheduled to open in 2003.

While other county budget lines take hits from a crushing deficit this year, funding for the jail is on the increase.

            "Net county support" for the jail system (that is, county appropriations minus some federal, state, and other outside funding) is pegged at $43.2 million for 2003, according to documents on the county website. That's up from $39 million in 2002.

            The money is spent on a range of things, as you'd expect in such a complex operation. "Think of the place as a large hotel," says Norman Compson, a special aide to Sheriff Patrick O'Flynn. Compson mentions necessities like linen service and food preparation.

            There are intangibles, too, like debt service. It's hardly different from what a family encounters when building a new home. New jail cells mean finance charges that must be paid over time. In this case, the 2003 budget includes debt service costs of around $2.5 million; that's actually down from $3.1 million the year before. The county has used tobacco settlement money to retire some debt. But this remains controversial. "Using the tobacco money was ill-advised," says county legislator Todd Bullard, a Democrat who sits on the Lej's public safety committee. "What we have is like a white elephant," he adds. "We can't afford to staff [the new cells] in line with state guidelines."

            The big jail-related expenses, as itemized in public budget documents, are for salaries and benefits. This year those two lines add up to $34.7 million --- around 80 percent of the jail-budget total. And these costs are directly related to the size of the jail. Stated another way, jail costs vary directly with the number of cells in use.

            At first blush that sounds like a purely academic distinction; but there's some method behind it. "There's no such thing as a 'new jail,'" says Compson. "It's just an expansion," he says, and there are "no separate budgets" for individual facilities. Indeed, all costs are factored into a unitary jail budget; the latter covers the older cells downtown as well as those in the Brighton facility, which houses people serving out sentences of up to a year. So, as Compson says, it's not easy to track all the dollars and cents.

            But there are some handy, even memorable figures.

            Right now, says Compson, it costs an average of $87 per day to keep a person in a county jail cell. It's difficult to compare this to figures from other counties and states; an Internet search turned up costs-per-day in the $50 or $60 range, sometimes less, or in the case of juvenile facilities, considerably more. The wide variation is illusory, because the figures depend on what categories the various jurisdictions punch into their calculators. Suffice it to say that the per-inmate cost is invariably high --- again, like the charges for a hotel room.

            In any case, Monroe County's jail costs are going to remain high for a while longer. How long? Compson says it's impossible to calculate. Everything depends, he says, on patterns in law enforcement --- for example, the number of arrests. The county is over another barrel, too, he says: The state Commission of Correction is requiring 70 to 80 new staff positions for the additional cells.

            The additions are a response to overcrowding --- a persistent problem, all parties agree.

            Over the last decade and a half, the number of inmates has gone up significantly faster than "beds" have been added. A backgrounder prepared several years ago by Rochester Institute of Technology criminologist John Klofas tells the story: Between 1980 and 1989, total county jail capacity stayed level at around 450 beds. In 1990, the Brighton facility, built at a cost of $13.6 million, contributed 253 more beds. And a couple of years later, 200 beds were added downtown, at a cost of $16.6 million.

            All this brought the total of beds up to 900 or so. But there had been a steady increase in the average daily number of inmates, too. That figure rose from around 400 in the early 1980s to around 1,300 by 1995. Today the average daily jail population is around 1,360, according to county budget documents. And it's projected to rise to 1,375 next year. (The trajectory matches a huge upswing in drug-related arrests over the last two decades.)

            These population figures are obviously high --- compare Monroe County's general population, which grew only around three percent between 1990 and 2000. But the figures could have been higher. John Klofas estimated a few years ago that by the year 2000, the average daily jail population would climb to around 2,000. That didn't happen. And we can thank ATIs, among other things, for the fact that it didn't.

            Nevertheless, the jail population may remain a lot higher than it was in the "good old days" of the early '80s. That's due in part to the raw number of cells --- some advocates recall the "if you build it they will come" syndrome. And once the cells are built and used, they have staying power. The county jail "is a well-constructed facility," says Compson. We're dealing with "a 20, 30, 40 year situation," he says.

            Then there's a form of de facto subcontracting for Albany and Washington. At any one time, the county jails hold many "detainees," parole violators, and inmates waiting to be sent on to state or federal prisons. "We have more of these 'others' than we do of the locals," says Sheriff's aide Compson. In October 2002, he says, there were 767 such detainees, compared to under 600 local truly local inmates. The county does get reimbursements for state and federal detainees' expenses, he says, but only after they've been held 10 days. (State and federal reimbursements will total around $1.8 million next year, up from $1.4 million in 2002, according to county budget documents.)

Malcolm Young, director of the Washington-based Sentencing Project, has been tracking the relevant trends.

            "The demand for jail and prison use has gone up all over the country," says Young. There's been lots of new construction, he says, with attendant increases in staffing costs. The phenomenon, he says, was apparent through the 1990s boom years, when planners simply felt they'd have enough money both to build new jails and pursue alternatives to incarceration.

            Then came the bust.

            "Alabama," says Young, citing one example, "has four prisons it's been unable to staff and utilize." And in Illinois and Indiana, he says, "governors have been asked to release inmates" to fight costs.

            It's important, though, to distinguish state prisons from local jails in this regard. As Young explains, localities often are between a rock and a hard place. Many jail inmates are awaiting trial and sentencing, not actually serving sentences; the number of such inmates depends on how strictly the laws are enforced, how many people get arrested, how and to whom bail is granted, and how many arrestees are actually indicted and tried.

            It's not easy for a community to solve its jail problems, says Young. "Getting all the parties together is difficult, because there's politics involved." Monroe Countians can relate to that.

            Even getting simple figures can be a hassle.

            "They [county officials] don't want to tell us what the new jail is going to cost over time," says Susan Porter, head of the local Judicial Process Commission, a leading watchdog group.

            But Porter does know where the savings --- in money as well as human lives and futures --- can be found. "On the conservative side," she says, ATIs "are about three-quarters the cost of bricks and mortar and traditional jails."


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