Written By: Brandon Coombs
Onondaga County Legislature Split Over Merger
The Onondaga County Legislature in a vote Tuesday, February 9, 2023, approved a necessary step to begin merging Jamesville Correctional Facility into the County Justice Center downtown. In a 9-8 vote, two republicans sided with all six democrats in voting no on the move which included four separate pieces of legislation.
That vote first defunded all corrections officer positions at Jamesville and creates new positions at the downtown jail. Second, the legislature also amended a local law which removed all mention of the word “corrections”, effectively removing a mandate to maintain a corrections division. Third, Sheriff Toby Shelly is required create a plan to move staff and inmates to the Justice Center. Lastly, a moratorium was placed on selling the Jamesville Correctional land.
Jamesville Correctional Facility has operated since 1983 and cost $9.8 million dollars to build. The facility has a capacity of 538 inmates. It is estimated that 120 individuals are currently incarcerated there, with 84 people employed at the facility. Onondaga County Deputy Executive Ann Rooney, along with Executive McMahon, says these numbers are too low to keep the facility open.
Supporters Cite Costs, Lawsuit Compliance
The County Executive’s theory is that merging Jamesville into the Justice Center would on one hand save Onondaga County millions of dollars every year by reducing operating costs, and on the other fix the staffing issues at the Justice Center to avoid further penalties from a lawsuit settlement in 2014.
Executive McMahon, who just proposed the move in December with ex-Sheriff Eugene Conway, cites the costs of Jamesville to operate, the decline in Jamesville’s inmate population, and staffing issues at the Justice Center as primary reasons why the facilities should be merged into the Justice Center.
The facility at Jamesville costs more than $20 million a year to operate and has seen an ever-declining population over the years. Furthermore, under the terms of the 2014 lawsuit settlement, Onondaga County is required to improve its ability to get inmates from the Justice Center to court. The Justice Center and the County Courthouse are a part of one in the same building.
The 2014 settlement against Onondaga County, known as Hurrell-Harring v. New York, requires the County to improve its ability to get defendants to court and is being enforced by the State’s Office for Indigent Legal Services. In November, that office said the current arrangements are already noncompliant due to the failure to resume in-person court. Executive McMahon has warned it will further cost millions of dollars if Onondaga County cannot meet the terms of the settlement by getting defendants to court on time.
Opponents Voice Concern and Disapproval
The New York State Commission of Corrections, in a letter to Onondaga County, also raised several issues with the merger, which included staffing issues and housing capacity, as the transfer of the employees and inmates from Jamesville would ramp the total capacity of the County Justice Center up from 59% to 80%. One County Legislator expressed that the influx of inmates will “cause chaos” at the downtown facility.
Newly elected Sheriff Toby Shelly is also among those to raise concerns with the plan led by Executive McMahon. Sheriff Shelly argues that the process is moving too fast in that it is not yet clear how effective the merger will be in improving safety, saving money, and improving access to court under the terms of the settlement.
The Legislature’s approval on February 9, 2023, requires Onondaga County Sheriff’s Office, which Mr. Shelly now runs, to prepare a detailed plan regarding the merger. Mr. Shelly is hesitant to carry out the plan and told the Commission of Corrections that he cannot merge the facilities at this time. However, on February 22, 2023, Executive McMahon said the merger will go forward despite the pushback from Sheriff Shelly.
The staff at Jamesville are also not receptive to Executive McMahon’s cost-cutting approach. The current staff at Jamesville is set to lose their seniority at the Justice Center, which will result in unfavorable scheduling and positioning through no fault of their own. The titles of their positions will also be converted from corrections officers to deputy sheriffs. However, many would get a raise in their salary of about $10,000, depending on how long they have been employed at Jamesville.
In the event that the merger fails to fix the problem of defendant court appearances under the terms of the lawsuit settlement, it could cost the County as much money, if not more, than it will save in the merger. Although, according to a recent estimate, the merger could save the county between $5 and $10 million a year, it is yet to be seen whether the proposal will improve the County’s adherence to the terms of the lawsuit settlement, save money, and make our law enforcement officers, staff, and inmates housed there safer.
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