OSWEGO, NY – The Oswego County Legislature continues to be held prisoner by the over-crowding situation at the Oswego County Jail.
On Thursday night, the legislature approved transferring $500,000 from the appropriated fund balance into the prisoner charges – other facilities budget line in order to meet the expense already incurred and to cover the estimated expenses during the remainder of 2014.
In the first two months of the year, the expense to house inmates elsewhere amounted to $130,000. That exhausted the adopted 2014 budget amount of $100,000.
The resolution sparked a lengthy debate on the floor of the legislature, with some legislators questioning the county’s budgeting practices.
“Capacity at the Oswego County Correctional Facility continues to exceed its limits due to a variety of factors. This results in inmates being housed in facilities in other counties at the expense of our own,” Sheriff Reuel Todd explained. “I don’t put people in jail. Judges put them in, judges take them out.”
The sheriff pointed out that he has no way of knowing from month to month how many inmates will have to be housed our-of-county.
“I have no problem with paying the bill. But I do have a problem with the budgeting,” Legislator Doug Malone said. “That’s our job. It’s day to day, month to month, year to year. It should have been budgeted.”
“We submitted that budget back in June. We went through three or four different committees and no one made a motion to put it back in there then,” Todd pointed out.
“I really find it offensive that we have to put the sheriff through this; and we go through this a couple times a year,” said Legislator Shawn Doyle. “This is our fault. This is one of the reasons I didn’t vote for last year’s budget.
It’s irresponsible for the legislature to not budget responsibility, Legislator Mike Kunzwiler agreed.
“It’s not the sheriff’s fault. What the problem is, nobody’s solving this problem,” he said.
Some of the factors associated with overcrowding at the county jail include more local arrests for drugs and other felonies, longer jail sentences, the number of days defendants await sentencing, and the closure of state prisons. These closures have created a rise in the number of state parole violators being housed at the Oswego facility, Todd said.
This is an unfunded state mandate which, along with the state’s denial of a housing limit variance, has compounded the problem and forced the county to house prisoners at other counties’ prisons at local taxpayer expense.
Kunzwiler said Oswego County should form a committee with other NYS counties facing this same crisis, “And tell each of our (state) representatives that we elected to solve this problem. It’s both sides of the aisle not taking responsibility for their actions and (the county) has to pay for it.”
“But to sit here and not budget for it when we know it’s there, that’s our fault,” he continued. “We have to look at places where we’re not mandated to do something and make cuts there.”
Legislator Frank Castiglia Jr. said the county needs to solve the problem, or else “What we’re doing is trying to urinate on a forest fire.”
This is a huge state problem, Doyle said. The ankle bracelet program is a good program, “But it is not a panacea to this whole problem.”
Electronic monitoring has helped decrease overcrowding at the county jail and housing inmates out-of-county. The program began in December 2012 and has steadily grown to become an accepted and meaningful sanction. Since its inception, electronic monitoring has saved county taxpayers $290,300.
Last year at budget time there was an idea that the program was going to clear up the over-crowding problem, he said, adding “It isn’t. Both parties, we need to push our state officials to try to help solve this problem. But, despite that, we’ve got to budget properly.”
“Over the last two years, I’ve heard probably a dozen different solutions on how to address this problem,” said Legislator Jake Mulcahey. “It’s important that we all get on the same page and then we do create a committee to look into this. And figure out the best way to do this. After we address the immediate concern, we also have to look at what’s causing the problem.”
“We have to fight crime. It’s something we all agree on; it is expensive. We have to figure out how we’re going to budget for this,” Legislator Amy Tresidder said. “We should all be grateful that these people are being put in jail. We can’t invite criminals here by not doing that.”
The county can’t control New York State government; it has to focus on what it can control, Kunzwiler said.
“Yes, what they do will affect us. But we have to do what we can do here every day,” he said.
Malone moved to increase the transfer to $700,000 to make sure all costs would be covered for 2014. Doyle seconded the motion.
The motion failed.
The original resolution was then approved.