Funding To Relieve Jail Over-Crowding Sparks Debate

OSWEGO, NY – The Oswego County Legislature Thursday (July 12) approved transferring funds to cover the cost of boarding OCJ inmates in other county facilities.

The resolution to transfer an additional $200,000 prompted a lengthy debate about how to correct the problem without continually having to spend more money on it.

“Are we working on long-term plans to address this issue?” asked Legislator Jacob Mulcahey. “I understand we are waiting on potential funding from the state, but I don’t know if that’s the answer. Looking ahead, where are we going?”

“Are you questioning whether we want to build a bigger jail?” asked Legislator Fred Beardsley, chairman of the legislature.

The county should look at all of its options, Mulcahey said, adding it has been close to a million dollars the county has spent on the problem so far.

“We have to start looking at what we can do to be investing rather than dumping money on this,” he added.

If the county built a new jail, the state would just send them more prisoners, Legislator Linda Lockwood said.

“The state is really putting us in a bind,” Legislator Art Ospelt pointed out.

The state requires county jails to house state prison parolees who are rearrested. However, the state doesn’t pay the counties for doing that, Sheriff Reuel Todd told the legislators earlier this spring when the legislature voted to approve $200,000 for the Sheriff’s Office for the same problem.

Back in late March, the State Senate’s Crime and Corrections Committee approved the bill, S.5498, which would require payment to the counties for any state inmates who are held in a county jail beyond 10 days.

The bill has been passed twice in the Senate.  It has not moved in the Assembly.

“Jail over-crowding is a problem in all three counties, and Senator Patty Ritchie worked in coordination with sheriffs in Oswego, Jefferson and St. Lawrence counties on this important reform,” said Sarah Compo, the senator’s director of communications. “If the Assembly won’t pass this next year, Senator Ritchie will possibly look into getting this done through the State Budget.”

There are several factors leading up to this problem, Oswego County Administrator Phil Church said.

“The number of state parolees that are in our jail have driven the cost up. It’s also driven the cost up because we’ve had more people arrested due to better police work,” he said.

They’re also considering alternatives to incarceration in some instances.

Expanding the current jail or building a new jail would be cost-prohibitative, he added. Besides the multi-million dollar construction cost, the county would also have to pay to staff and maintain the facility, he explained.

“When the state paroles somebody and they violate their parole, they’re coming to us,” Legislator Shawn Doyle said. “We’re taking care of some of the state’s problems. It’s a bad situation and we’re making the best of a bad situation.”

“It doesn’t help matters that state has been closing prisons,” Legislator Jim Oldenburg added. “That has contributed big time.”

Oswego County has to take the state inmates and “that’s unfortunate for county taxpayers,” he said.

Ospelt noted that every time this issue comes up, the county needs to make sure the public is aware of what is going on and why.

“Should we form a special committee on this? I’d rather address the problem sooner rather than later,” he said. Looking ahead, my opinion, I don’t think that dropping the blame entirely on the state is the right way to go. I think we’d have the problem regardless. I think five years from now we are going to look back and say, ‘Jake might have been right about that one.’”

“We didn’t have this problem until the state started unloading their problem on to us at our expense,” Beardsley said.

“So the entire over-population is due to housing state paroles?” Mulcahey asked.

Not 100 percent, but probably the majority (“well over half”), Beardsley said.

Legislator Dan LeClair asked if the county’s state representatives have been made aware of the situation.

It has been done, Beardsley said. The county is trying to get the message out there that “we are paying the state’s bills,” he added.

There have been a record number of arrests in the county this year, according to District Attorney Greg Oaks.

“We are on target to have over 1,000 felony arrests in the county this year,” he told the legislators. “I don’t think we’ve ever had that.”

Legislator Jim Karasek quipped the county “should take a couple van loads of violators up to the state capitol, put them in the rotunda and leave them there.”

“This is turning into a real financial hardship for the county. They are not listening to the letters; they are not listening to our local reps. At some point we need to take a stand and say we just simply cannot continue to walk down this road.”