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Change to jail libraries rule would let counties save

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The state Commission of Correction will vote Tuesday on a proposal to allow jails to forgo their brick-and-mortar law libraries in favor of electronic access to legal materials.

Jails are required by law to maintain law libraries, which need frequent updates from a shrinking number of publishers.

The commission estimates the new rule would save county jails an average of $5,000 a year.

Jefferson County spends more than that every year on reference materials, according to Sheriff’s Department Lt. Kristopher M. Spencer, jail supervisor at the Metro-Jefferson Public Safety Building.

The regulation would apply to all counties and the New York City Department of Corrections but would not affect state prisons.

Inmates stay at jails for a relatively short period — awaiting trial or serving sentences shorter than a year — and generally aren’t working on appeals to court decisions that could take years to resolve.

Some legal scholars have raised questions about the measure, concerned it could restrict inmates’ access to legal materials.

But officials insist the measure would benefit inmates and administrators alike.

“Law libraries are not being closed; the regulation gives jails flexibility in how they provide those services,” said Janine Kava, a spokeswoman for the commission, in an email message.

According to Ms. Kava, the regulation would provide the following significant changes:

n Counties no longer would have to provide a physical library of books on shelves. Instead, they could choose to offer a combination of resources or strictly electronic access to legal materials.

n Counties could use profits from the inmate commissary to pay for the electronic access — in terms of hardware, software and subscriptions.

n Smaller jails that don’t have library space would no longer be required to have a variance, or permission from the state, to use a courthouse law library. There are six counties with variances: Hamilton, Otsego, Delaware, Cortland, Orleans and Oswego.

The provision that would allow jails to use commissary funds to offset the transition’s cost is the most appealing part of the proposal to corrections officials.

Commissary funds cannot be used for requirements, Ms. Kava said, but the regulation change would make e-access optional and allow jails to use commissary funds to upgrade the library.

That’s “good news,” Mr. Spencer said.

The next step would be to get price quotes for computers and databases, he said.

According to Mr. Spencer, an intriguing option for the Sheriff’s Department would be to allow inmates to access legal materials via a touch-screen terminal provided in each unit by Swanson Services Corp., the company that furnishes the jail with commissary services.

The terminals already allow inmates to order food and other items through each terminal and, in the future, could grant them access to legal databases through the same interface — a feature the company offers at an additional charge.

“I was very intrigued with their law library component,” Mr. Spencer said. “But we weren’t going to pay for it if it didn’t meet any state requirements.”

If approved, the new regulation would take effect June 5.

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