The United States appears to be turning away—very gradually—from the most extreme form of mass incarceration. The Bureau of Justice Statistics’ most recent report, based on 2016 numbers, found that the number of people supervised by correctional systems nationwide had reached its lowest rate since 1993, having dropped 18 percent since 2007. The Empire State and the Big Apple are on trend: New York state’s prison population has decreased by at least 22 percent since 2007, and the average daily census in New York City jails fell by a third during the same period.
Given the sheer size of the U.S. jail and prison population, however, positive overall movements can mask smaller but still troubling problems. According to a report out this week from the Vera Institute for Justice, “the reduction of the nation’s jail population has been driven by remarkable downward trends in the largest cities” but “hundreds of small cities and towns across the country have taken a completely different course and broken ground on new and larger jails.”
Vera says urban county jail capacity declined by 9 percent from 2005 to 2013. “But other areas of the country—particularly rural areas, but also suburban areas and midsized cities—remain in a jail population boom and continue to build larger jails,” the study found. “Jail capacity in these areas grew by 11 percent over the same time period.”
There are signs of this trend, too, in some pockets of New York State.
Overall, local jails outside of New York City decreased their annual average population by 11 percent from 2009 to 2018. But at least three counties have plans to increase their jail capacity.
One of those is Herkimer County, population 62,000, which is in the process of building a 130-bed jail that is due to open by next autumn.
A crowded jail
According to Vera, the State Commission on Corrections (NYSCOC) in 2006 found the current Herkimer County Jail to be over capacity.
“Despite alternative proposals to address the issue—including permanently transferring people to other counties; renovating and expanding the existing facility; implementing alternatives to incarceration to bring the jail population down; and even constructing a new, but smaller facility—NYSCOC pushed the county to build a new and bigger 130-bed facility,” Vera says.
Janine Kava, director of public information for the commission, says Herkimer’s jail was structurally unsound because of a decision to enclose a one-time rooftop exercise area. “That project was done without the Commission’s review or approval, and caused roof damage and leakage and stress cracks in the jails’ interior walls,” Kava says.
Herkimer County occupies a rectangle of northern New York about midway between Albany and Syracuse, with its southern end overlapping Interstate 90 and its northern tip ending inside Adirondack Park. The County Sheriff did not respond to an email requesting comment.
Kava says the county shifted its exercise yard outside, but that space wasn’t large enough to fulfill requirements. What’s more “the jail had limited program and visitation space and was consistently overcrowded, which resulted in the ongoing need to board inmates at other facilities.”
Indeed, in 2018, Herkimer sent 34 of its 62 detainees and inmates to other counties. According to the latest sheriff’s report made public, from April, those out-of-county placements cost his department $85,000 in fees and $5,500 in transportation costs that month. A consultant advised the county in 2011 to build a jail with 125 to 130 beds, and the commission approved a 130-bed plan. The local Times-Telegram newspaper says work was delayed for years by a dispute over the chosen site.
There were 643 index felonies in Herkimer County last year, good for the 46th highest crime rate among state counties. Seventy-two of those were violent crimes.
Spending to save. Maybe.
The rationale behind the Herkimer jail is common, according to Vera’s report:
“As jail populations have exceeded capacity, county policymakers have turned to jail expansion rather than alternatives to incarceration, often hiring architects and consultants to provide population projections that validate this decision to build. In some cases, decision makers also argue that replacing older facilities will provide safer living and working conditions for the increasing numbers of people in the jail—sometimes under pressure from courts or state oversight agencies. … With an overcrowded jail population, counties sometimes pay jails in neighboring jurisdictions to house some of their overflow population.
County officials say Herkimer’s new facility will save taxpayers $700,000 a year. But it will come at a significant upfront price. The new jail will cost $38 million—a significant outlay for a county with a proposed 2020 budget of about $26 million. The money for the jail is coming from a sales tax hike and $19 million raised through selling bonds.
Recent experience suggests the jail could be bigger than Herkimer needs—even if it keeps all its inmates and detainees close to home. Back in 2011, the consultant hired by the county predicted an average daily population of 73.3 in Herkimer’s jail in 2018, but the real number was 62.
“Our research found that counties that build new jails hoping they’ll last the community for 30 years can find that within five or ten years the facility is overcrowded again,” says Chris Mai, a Vera researcher. “Once a new jail is opened with empty beds, the people that make decisions through the local criminal justice system—like police, judges and district attorneys—can begin to make different choices in response.”
For example, Mai says, when a jail is overcrowded, police may issue citations instead of making certain arrests. “But when a new jail is built, police may increase the number of arrests they make sending even more people to jail. Jails can quickly become overcrowded once again,” she says.
Kava says counties can seek commission approval to reduce the number of beds in approved jail plans. Herkimer hasn’t done so.
But Greene County has: It recently won approval of a reduction in the capacity of its new jail from 80 to 64 beds.
Herkimer and Greene represent two of three currently approved county jail projects in the state. The third is in Sullivan County, where a new facility is scheduled to open in early 2020, with 256 beds. In 2018, Sullivan’s jail had a daily population of just 140.
Genesee County has yet to submit a plan for commission approval, but Kava says it is working on a plan for a jail 184 beds. Last year, Genesee’s daily average jail census was 105.
Bail reform impact?
Of course, the new New York City jails planned for Brooklyn, the Bronx, Manhattan and Queens under Mayor de Blasio’s plan to replace Rikers with borough jails, also involves building thousands of new cells, but those do reflect a significant reduction in the city’s overall jail capacity.
As is true of the Rikers population, much of the census in local jails elsewhere in the state is comprised of people who are presumed innocent—folks who have been detained before trial, either because a judge remanded them or because bail was imposed that they could not afford.
It’s unclear how the 2019 bail reforms, which take effect in January, might affect local jail populations throughout the state. In Sullivan County, 61 percent of the 2018 jail census was unsentenced. But the share of pretrial detainees is far lower in Genesee (45 percent), Herkimer (30 percent) and Greene (10 percent).
New York State law requires all counties to have a jail, according to Kava. But the vast disparity in populations makes that requirement minimal for some of the 62 counties. Tiny Hamilton County, population 4500, had a jail census in 2018 of just 2—100 percent higher than in 2009, when only one person was in lockup there.
Local jail trends in New York State
|County||Jail census, 2018||Change in census, 2009-2018||Share of census that is unsentenced, 2018||Change in number boarded out to other counties, 2009-2018||Change in number boarded in from other counties, 2009-2018|