Onondaga County jail. Credit: Chris Libonati | libonati@centralcurrent.org

Onondaga County legislators heard cases for and against merging the Syracuse jail and Jamesville Correctional Facility at a pair of meetings Tuesday. 

Officials from the county executive’s office laid out reasons why they proposed the merger in December: a lack of staffing has led to defendants having to appear virtually in court for about a year and a half, in violation of a 2014 court settlement.

Members from Sheriff Toby Shelley’s leadership team offered rebuttals, arguing the issues that the county executive’s office laid out could be addressed without a merger. 

“We have to identify the problem before we fix it,” said Undersheriff Jeff Passino, who spoke for Shelley at the meetings. 

Deputy County Executive Ann Rooney, who argued for the merger, said former Sheriff Eugene Conway and the county administration had tried to hire more deputies and fix staffing issues at the jail. 

Rooney pitched the merger as a last resort solution.

“This is the one that is left to us,” she said. 

County Executive Ryan McMahon and Conway proposed merging the two facilities to allow them to move corrections officers downtown, where they could increase efficiency.

McMahon and Conway held a press conference announcing the proposal during the lame-duck portion of Conway’s tenure. Shelley beat Esteban Gonzalez, a deputy to Conway, in November. 

Here are some of the biggest considerations discussed Tuesday: 

Hurrell-Harring lawsuit

Since a 2014 settlement, five Upstate New York counties, including Onondaga, have been required to provide criminal defendants with a lawyer at their first court appearance and to hold appearances in person. 

In-person arraignments were suspended across the state for about a year during the Covid-19 pandemic, until June 25, 2021. While most counties went back to in-person arraignments, Onondaga County has not, violating terms of the settlement. 

New York State’s Office of Indigent Legal Services, which helps enforce the settlement, notified the county in November that it was out of compliance with the settlement agreement.

Patricia Warth, director of Indigent Legal Services wrote to the county that “the custodial arraignments in the Syracuse City Court morning session — which constitute a significant percentage of all Onondaga County arraignments — continue to be conducted virtually.

“This failure to return to in-person arraignments well over a year after the end of the public health necessity for virtual arraignments renders Onondaga County out of compliance with a critical HH settlement requirement,” Warth wrote.

The county has said it failed to comply because it lacks the staff to transport incarcerated individuals from the jail to court. Staffing in the jail’s transport department has dropped between one-third and one-half since the pandemic started. 

Staffing 

County officials, including Rooney, argued the only solution to staffing issues is to  merge the two facilities. 

Under the county’s plan, all corrections officers and incarcerated individuals would be moved from Jamesville to the downtown Syracuse jail.

About 120 incarcerated individuals are housed at Jamesville and 84 people are employed at the facility, according to the sheriff’s office. The ratio of incarcerated individuals to employees is too low to keep the facility open, Rooney argued. 

There are enough corrections officers from Jamesville to fill vacant positions at the jail, and the addition of incarcerated individuals would not create a significant burden, the county argued. 

Beyond its potential violation of the Hurrell-Harring settlement, the county noted the staffing situion has led to lockdowns and violations of the HALT Act, which regulates solitary confinement. 

“The obvious solutions to these problems (the hiring of more Justice Center staff) have been implemented and exhausted,” the county wrote in an analysis packet given to legislators. “…The clear solution is to merge the Corrections Division with the Custody Division.” 

Passino argued that in just 17 days, the new sheriff’s administration has been able to cut into some of the problems pointed out by Rooney. The office has not locked down the jail in the first 17 days of Shelley’s term. It also cut the number of missed appearances by defendants, Passino said.

Shelley’s administration reduced the training time for deputies to work in transport. Under former Sheriff Eugene Conway, deputies being moved to the transport division were trained for a full year. Passino said they are now having jail deputies temporarily cover transport deputies’ shifts. 

While Passino touted the fixes the sheriff’s office has devised so far, 10th District Legislator Mark Olson questioned whether the patch could last long-term. 

The county presented numbers that showed dramatic declines in the number of candidates taking the civil service exam to become jail deputies. 

“If people aren’t taking that test,” Olson said, “what are we going to do?”

Declining jail population

Since November 2017, the number of people incarcerated in Onondaga County declined from 1,033 people to 520, according to statistics reported to the state in December 2022. 

There are 1,140 beds combined at the county jail and Jamesville. 

County officials attributed the decline in the jail’s population to three pieces of legislation, including:

  • Raise the Age, which moved 16 and 17 year olds from the jail to Hillbrook Detention Center.
  • Sweeping changes in bail laws in January 2020, more commonly referred to as bail reform.
  • The establishment of a Centralized Arraignment court, which allowed those who have been arrested to be more quickly arraigned and released.  

Rooney argued that moving all of the county’s incarcerated population to the jail — increasing the jail’s capacity rate from 59% to 81% — would not overburden the jail. 

Sheriff’s office officials, including Passino and John Ball, a consultant with the sheriff’s office, said that while the jail has open beds, the classification of inmates could make filling them more difficult. 

Some incarcerated individuals cannot be housed together or have recreation time together, making it harder to fill beds, the sheriff’s office argued. A small number of incarcerated individuals can sometimes fill an outsized space in the jail.

Union issues 

The county had tried for a year to negotiate a resolution between the unions representing Jamesville’s correctional officers (CSEA) and the jail deputies (Deputy Sheriff’s Benevolent Association) to no avail, according to personnel commissioner Carl Hummel. 

If Jamesville and the jail were to be merged, all correctional officers would be laid off and immediately offered new jobs at the jail. Many would see pay bumps of about $10,000, depending on how long they’ve been employed at Jamesville, according to Hummel.  

Former custody chief Gonzalez, who ran unsuccessfully for sheriff against Shelley and now works for the county executive’s office, said corrections officers at Jamesville have been offered jobs as deputies at the jail five times over the last year. About 20 took jobs at the jail and none have gone back to Jamesville. 

Potential savings

Merging Jamesville and the county jail could save the county at least $5 million and upwards of about $10 million, according to county Chief Financial Officer Steve Morgan. 

Morgan said $5 million would be a baseline estimate and doesn’t take into account changes in operating costs, utilities, security systems, food services or health care.

Contracts for health care, security systems and food services would have to be renegotiated because the services would no longer be spread between the two facilities. 

There are 50 funded, vacant positions at the jail that would be filled if corrections officers go to work at the jail, which would eventually help cut costs and help toward the $5 million in savings. 

When could the Legislature vote?

It’s unclear when a proposed merger between the jail and Jamesville — which would effectively close Jamesville — will be voted on by the Legislature. 

The county executive’s office has not yet proposed a formal resolution.

The proposal would have to pass through the ways and means committee later this month, before moving to a general vote. An agenda has not yet been released the committee meeting.

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Chris Libonati

Chris Libonati covers government, accountability and equity. Have a tip? Contact Chris at 585-290-0718 or libonati@centralcurrent.org.