A new broom sweeps clean, it’s said, and county comptroller March Gallagher is recommending sweeping changes to rein in costs that the new sheriff largely inherited at the county jail. Ulster County executive Pat Ryan is applauding Gallagher’s audit as contributing to an opportunity to find “a modern and just solution” to incarceration.
“The jail is a shrine to a bygone era of mass incarceration,” he wrote in a press release last week. “In light of our reckoning with systemic inequities in our criminal justice system and our dire financial situation, now more than ever we need to take urgent action.”
The jail, first opened in 2007, represents seven percent of the total county budget. Faced with a drastic drop in revenues due to this year’s pandemic, Ryan is ordering an across-the-board cut of ten percent. The problem is that even those measures, if implemented where state regulations permit, will be insufficient to balance the county’s books in 2020.
In the audit released August 13, comptroller Gallagher has determined that the cost per inmate at the jail has risen from $69,000 in 2014 to $181,000 this year. That’s largely because jail population has steadily decreased during that time period, but costs have increased due to a combination of mandated staffing levels that have not been adequately adjusted by state regulators and contractual expenses that, like the staffing levels, are based on a much larger number of inmates than are actually locked up.
With the passage last year of state bail reform, the Ulster County jail population, set at a capacity of 458 in 2017, dropped sharply, to 122 on average this year. At the same time, contracts to provide healthcare and food service were set at flat rates that were higher than the actual population — 310 and 325 inmates, respectively, according to the findings.
Additionally, some of the standard accounting procedures used in the county government have resulted in misleading or inaccurate figures being provided to legislators as they prepare the annual budget. Staffing at a county jail is determined by the New York State Commission on Corrections. This so-called maximum facility capacity, used to set mandatory staffing levels, can and has been adjusted since the jail in Kingston was first opened in 2007. It was originally 426, increased to 488 in 2013, and lowered to 458 in 2017. Since 2013, that’s resulted in a minimum staffing requirement of 158 corrections officers. That maximum capacity has never been achieved, even with inmates from other counties being housed therein. The most ever there was in 2014 (362 on an average day), and that number gradually decreased due to a reduction in violent crime to 217 last year. With the passage last year of state bail reform, the jail population, set at a capacity of 458 in 2017, dropped sharply, to 122 on average this year.|
Ulster County jail costs for 2019 were $24.4 million. Not all those costs are reflected in the annual report filed by the sheriff. Some re attributed to debt service or buildings and grounds, for example. All told, $2.28 million in expenses connected to the jail appeared elsewhere in the county budget. What’s more, year-end adjustments by the sheriff aren’t always completed by the April 1 deadline. For 2019, there was at $4.8 million differential between actual expenses and what was in the report provided to the legislature.
Gallagher is seeking remedies to the issues identified in the audit. She wants the state to reevaluate the maximum facility capacity. Could the county jail be retooled to serve as a regional lockup or for some other purpose? The comptroller is also recommending that sheriff Juan Figueroa get in the habit of amending his annual report if staffers in the county’s finance department can’t find a way to adjust the deadline for filing it, and to include in jail costs those many items that end up in non-sheriff budgetary lines in that report to the legislature.
In addenda to the audit, Figueroa pointed out some errors. He observed that the contracts were signed when jail populations were higher. Gallagher, in effect, said that they were never as high as the levels established.
It is not just the jail that’s a symbol of a bygone area, according to Ryan’s view. It’s the whole system based on the premise that the main social purpose of the policing function is the punishment of the lawbreaker. Governor Andrew Cuomo recently decreed that all local police agencies review the effect of their enforcement of the laws on the books on minorities, particularly people of color. The content of those reports, due April 1, may set in motion deeper reconsideration of the present pattern of law enforcement in New York State.