To save money, lower local taxes and improve government efficiencies, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has actively promoted sharing and merging government services.
But one such opportunity that’s remained ambiguous, but which has been sought by some counties, including Albany County, is allowing counties to share jails.
Right now, each county is required to maintain its own jail. As jails have aged and as inmate populations have dropped, some counties have looked across to their neighboring counties as a place to house their inmates rather than fund expensive replacement jails or upgrades.
If sharing services and consolidation has potential to save money, it’s here, where the state’s declining inmate population and criminal justice reforms has opened up space in newer, larger jails.
In his budget proposal earlier this week, Gov. Cuomo opened up the door for more cooperation between counties in housing inmates by proposing to change the law so that it will “not prohibit counties from jointly maintaining a county jail pursuant to a shared services agreement.”
That should clear up any lingering ambiguity over whether the state requires each county to maintain its own separate jail.
Allowing counties to share jails could be mutually beneficial.
Counties that would offer to serve as hosts would make more efficient use of their now-vacant space and receive income from “renting” their cells to other counties.
Counties that make use of other counties’ jails could offset the rental cost of housing their inmates elsewhere by not having to spend millions on new jails and upgrades.
Still, like other consolidation and shared services efforts, some of the anticipated savings might not fully materialize.
For starters, renting jail cells could get expensive, depending on how many inmates have to be housed at a particular facility and what the host county charges.
The county that gives up its jail would also lose the jobs that local jails provide, although the host county might be able to hire some of those employees.
Another issue is transportation of inmates.
Courthouses are often near jails for easy and timely transportation of inmates back and forth to court dates. Transporting inmates long distances between one county’s jail and another county’s courthouse could become prohibitively expensive and disrupt court scheduling. We’ve seen these issues arise when counties have had to temporarily house inmates in other jails due to overcrowding or during new jail construction.
Whether promised savings will actually materialize and whether it’s financially viable for counties to jointly operate jails comes down the details of individual arrangements.
But the governor should be applauded for giving counties the opportunity.
And state lawmakers should support it.