January 6, 2006

Crime and the cost of punishment

This morning's Ithaca Journal reports that yet another Dryden resident has been accused of rape, this time in Caroline. I believe that's the fourth incident in just a few months, and have no idea what could explain this strange surge of violence.

The Journal also reports on one of the costs of crime, that of incarceration. The headline screams that Board outs may cost more than $320K, a substantial increase over the "prior six years... $25,000." It's only deep in the article that we find:

the state pulled the variances, setting the county up for a number of unknowns in terms of cost - both human and financial.

But those costs would seem far less dramatic than what could have been. In 2004, some legislators had cold feet about plunking down $20 million or more to build a new jail, as the state had mandated the county to do.

The state's Commission on Corrections removed variances that had allowed Tompkins County to house 105 (if I remember right) inmates in the jail, because it wanted the county to build a jail that would house 134 inmates - not that the county has ever needed room for 134 prisoners.

A simple way to look at the $320,000 figure is to compare it to $20 million over 20 years. Even before interest - and staffing! - that's $1 million a year. The county could board out a lot more prisoners and still be ahead financially.

However, the 18-year-old jail, as Sheriff Meskill points out, really needs work. Major work, not just a little work - and the state can prohibit any changes to the footprint of the building until the county does what they want. Even without an expansion, that would be millions of dollars. Eventually the county will have to spend a sizable sum of money on the jail.

My personal take on this is that the state Commission on Corrections is ordering counties to build larger jails because the state is finally getting tired of paying for prisons. The deal where downstate provides economic subsidies to upstate by housing so many of their prisoners here is unraveling, because the cost is enormous. Rockefeller's drug laws, passed in large part so Rocky could look tougher on the national political stage, will eventually fall because they simply cost too much to enforce. Politicians just need to find a way to reduce those penalties without looking like they're soft on crime.

When that happens, a lot more of the convictions for drug crime will lead to sentences served locally, rather than at the state prisons. While that's a good thing in many ways, it also means that counties will have to pay a lot more to support their own jails. It seems unlikely that the state will be excited about sharing those costs, and once again we'll have local property taxpayers picking up where state income taxpayers get to walk away.

At least that's my take on it. It'll be years in the making, and has some upsides as well as downsides, but the cost of incarceration locally seems bound to increase. Not because of this year's board-out costs, but because of policy changes at the state level. I'm not honestly sure what policy the county should follow while this all sorts out.

Posted by simon at January 6, 2006 6:46 PM in , , , ,
Note on photos


Mary Ann said:

I wonder why the State has the authority to mandate the number of jail cells the county must have. In his book, Our Endangered Values, Jimmy Carter relates the growth of prison construction and prison guard jobs to dangerous religious fundamentalist principles. In the move away from alternatives to incarceration the number of Americans in prison has grown from one per thousand in the 1970s to seven per thousand now. This is the highest incarceration rate in the world, surpassing the former record in Russia of six per thousand.

The state Commission on Corrections was formed, if I remember right, because of abuses in various jails. Its mission statement ( http://www.scoc.state.ny.us/ ) reads: "The New York State Commission of Correction has a mission to provide for a SAFE, STABLE and HUMANE correctional system in New York State."

There's more on their history at http://www.scoc.state.ny.us/orghist.htm.

Of course, the governor appoints the commissioners, and all of these folks are Pataki appointees. I suspect their priorities reflect his pretty well. You can find out more about them at http://www.scoc.state.ny.us/bio.htm.

Jim said:

The county has missed an opportunity to actually make some money by expanding the jail. Tim Joseph would have you believe that we'd be in the hole to the tune of millions of dollars if the jail expanded, but when the current jail was built in the mid-1980's, the county made tens of thousands of dollars by boarding inmates in from elsewhere. Yes, some county jails elsewhere have themselves expanded in the intervening 18 years, but even with NO outside county board-ins, Tompkins County could have made arrangements to board in Federal inmates and even had the Feds cover part of the construction costs as they did for Ononadaga County.That would have significantly reduced the cost of any expansion.

It all boils down to the political philosophy of people like Tim Joseph , and before him Eric Lerner, who are convinced that its wrong to incarcerate anyone. The reality is that the best place for some people ,in the interest of a safe society,is behind bars. You have to have a facility thats large enough to allow that to happen without being forced to divert some inmates to day reporting, probation, ATI, etc because theres no room at the county jail.