What’s Wrong With the Broome County Jail?

By Andrew J Pragacz                 ajrpragacz@gmail.com

The Broome County jail holds more people today than seventeen years ago, despite stagnating arrests and crime rates. In 1997, 375 persons sat in the jail on average, translating into over 2,700 distinct persons, by 2014 that number shot up to 481, with over 3,500 entering the jail yearly. Why is BC incarcerating so many more people?

It’s often assumed that incarceration rates are correlated with crime. This, however, is not the case. Nationally, incarceration rates have soared while crime rates have fallen, at least since the early 1990s. The same goes for Broome County. The number of crimes shows no clear pattern over time (see graph labeled “Number of Crimes in Broome County”). The jail population trend line, however, is clear: it goes up. (Just for clarifications sake, the Broome County population has not changed significantly from 1997-2014).

Alternatively, we might assume more arrests mean more people in jail. Perhaps the police got better at catching people. In fact, there are fewer overall and misdemeanor arrests, with more serious felony arrest staying the same.

If not crime, then what is pushing up jail incarceration? To ask this we need to examine who’s in the jail. Most persons in the BC jail have not been convicted of a crime. That population has jumped by 65% since 1997, while the number of persons sentenced to jail stayed the same. The ratio of unconvicted to convicted persons now tops 3 to 1. There are over 3 times the number of persons who have not been found guilty of a crime languishing in the BC Jail compared to convicted persons. More people are in the jail because we are locking up more people, probably poorer people for longer stretches of time with very high bails. More people are in the jail because more people are sent there by judges and police. Period.

But that’s not all. Jails, like bathrooms during intermission, fill up. When jails expand, so do the number of people in them, even when crime, arrests, and county populations stay the same. Big jails breed incarcerated persons, and bigger jails breed bigger jail populations.

A little read and even less heeded report commissioned by Broome County to study the Sheriff’s Department in 2007 found that in between 1996 and 1997 the average daily jail population almost doubled to 376 persons. Why? The county built a new, bigger jail facility. In the report’s words: “The current correctional facility opened in 1996. The system reacted quickly to fill the 400 beds. The pattern…tends to be one where capacity is driving the number of[incarcerated] at the correctional facility.”

And now, despite protests, the Broome County Jail is expanding again. Fifty beds and a kitchen are currently being added, for $6 million (plus loan interest) in construction costs and another $321,000 for 13 extra guards. The latter number is expected to rise by up to 3 times in years to come as guards receive salary increases, benefits, and employee costs rise.

BC is just as safe today as a decade or two decades ago and we lock up more people, while arresting fewer. More people are locked up for the simple reason: the jail capacity expanded and the criminal process system decided to fill it. Once filled, they asked for a bigger jail again. Once that fills they’ll ask again to lock up persons who need not be there!

The solution is deceptively simple: delete jail beds. Remove them brick by brick. History and example show that fewer jail beds breed creative, more socially just, economically sensible, and safer–for society and the offender–solutions to incarceration. Delete the cells.

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