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Think outside the cellblock

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Noting the pending loss of 111 jobs, municipal leaders in Franklin County said last month that they will fight to keep the state’s correction facility in Chateaugay open.

The New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision announced in July that its prison in Chateaugay is among the four that the agency plans to close next year. With a 24 percent drop in the prison population at state facilities since 1999, corrections officials said these prisons are no longer needed. The other three are the Montery Shock facility in Schuyler County, the Butler prison in Wayne County and the Mt. McGregor facility in Saratoga County.

If their primary argument is to keep the 111 jobs in Franklin County, supporters of the local prison have an uphill battle. From the perspective of the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, the jobs at Chateaugay will not be lost but rather transferred to other facilities.

And it’s been estimated that closing these prisons will save the state about $30 million a year. To trim the penal system’s budget by this amount as the state’s prison population continues to decline just makes sense.

Well, those figures are being thrown around out of context. While the number of inmates at state facilities has dropped, the populations of county lockups overflow the available cells. And what money may be saved for taxpayers on the state level is being chewed up by county agencies forced to transfer inmates across county borders to house them.

A story in the Sept. 8 issue of the Watertown Daily Times examined the challenges faced by county officials in identifying adequate space for inmates. County lockups house people awaiting trial as well as inmates who have been sentenced to terms not exceeding one year.

State laws mandate which prisoners may be housed in state facilities. This has the effect of creating two distinct living environments within the county and state penal systems.

There are, of course, some good reasons for keeping these inmates separate. People sentenced to longer prison terms have committed more serious crimes and have a greater potential for engaging in violent behavior.

And the recidivism rate for inmates in state prisons is substantially higher than it is for those in county facilities. Authorities fear that mixing the two populations will turn more county inmates into repeat offenders.

But this doesn’t mean that state facilities, which are underutilized, can’t house inmates from county lockups, which are overutilized. A county’s judicial system acts as an arm of the state in prosecuting individuals accused of committing crimes. So while attention must be paid to segregating inmates by the seriousness of their crimes, there is no reason that resources from one part of our penal system shouldn’t be used to alleviate problems being confronted by another.

County lockups should be used primarily for people awaiting trial; they should not be shuffled back and forth between county facilities. This places too great a burden on defendants who need to attend proceedings in one location and who need access to their attorneys. Any space left over can be used to house inmates with shorter sentences.

State prisons should be reconstituted to house both county and state inmates, albeit in separate facilities. The planned closure of four facilities, and the previous closure of others, demonstrates that space is available.

What’s needed now is the political imagination of county and state officials to reconsider how we house those in the penal system. This would be no easy task, to be sure, but there’s no doubt that it’s necessary. The time is now to end relentless pressure on counties to invest local tax dollars in jail expansions while the state has vacant facilities.

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