Dutchess County has an unprecedented opportunity to change what a county jail is and how a criminal justice system addresses its inmates.
The bond plan recently submitted to the legislature is the most expensive and least effective way to seize that opportunity.
The proposed plan, at an estimated cost of $192 million, would be the largest capital project ever undertaken by the county and would almost triple our outstanding debt to more than $1,000 per resident.
County officials assert that the annual debt service cost of $9.9 million would be offset by cost avoidance of $13.6 million and would thus save $5.3 million annually. The savings start in 2021. This assertion is based on questionable assumptions that should be carefully vetted by an independent citizen review.
Why is the plan assuming that the number of inmates will increase? In 2015, the average inmate population as shown in the county presentation was 441, down from 474 in 2014. The current jail bond is for 569 beds. Nationwide, the trend is toward lower rates of incarceration.
From 2005 to 2014, the Dutchess County inmate population increased 43.4 percent, more than any surrounding county (www.scoc.ny.gov/pop.htm). To address this alarming increase, Dutchess County began several alternatives to incarceration (ATI) programs. Much more can be done to decrease our inmate population.
Why is the first phase of the plan a new sheriff’s office? At $36.5 million, this is almost 20 percent of the total bond cost and does not address the primary problem of inadequate jail facilities. Jail completion is scheduled for April 2020, two years after the completion of the sheriff’s new office.
Why do we have less than seven weeks to review the extensive materials that support this proposal? Feb. 4 was the first time legislators received the plan and they are expected to vote on March 21. The public was not allowed to ask questions on Feb. 4; instead, we need to return on Feb. 16 for the External Advisory Committee meeting.
Why is there no alternative to financial chaos? County officials assert that if legislators do not approve the plan exactly as presented on February 4, the State Commission of Corrections (SCOC) will revoke our variance for the temporary modular facility used for housing inmates (PODs) and we will be forced to move our inmates to other jails.
Let’s be clear about the role of the county versus the SCOC. In return for giving the county the variance, the county agreed to construct a new permanent correctional space. The current plan includes much more than is needed to honor that commitment.
The SCOC is not asking for a new sheriff’s office or a 36-bed hospital wing with its associated costs and liabilities. The SCOC is not dictating 569 beds; the county decides on the number needed and justifies it to the SCOC.
County officials are promising that we need not worry, trust us, all will be well.
To those concerned about the size of the jail: County officials assert that they can cancel construction of one area and “decommission” another area for other uses. The cost of “decommissioning” is not detailed.
To those concerned that we have not included funding for the services and programs needed to reduce incarceration: County officials assert that we will receive grants as we will be acclaimed a leader in criminal justice reform. Failing that, we can use part of the promised $5.3 million surplus starting in 2021.
Let’s forgo promises and focus on commitments.
Let’s build what we need, not 20-35 percent more. Let’s fund the services and programs we need now to keep people out of jail, not in 2021 after we build an overcapacity compound.
We need a new fiscally responsible alternative plan. Legislators should vote no on this plan.
Mary Hannon Williams is the president of the Dutchess Democratic Women’s Caucus (DDWC) and a member of the DDWC Criminal Justice Task Force.