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Shrinking Jails, Rising Costs: Erie County's Wasteful Jail Budget

Date: Nov 21, 2020
Author(s): Colleen Kristich
Topic(s): Criminal Justice: General, Criminal Justice: Incarceration
Type: Policy Brief

This policy brief presents data on the makeup of the Erie County jail population, which has reduced by 48% since 2017. It examines the capacity of both jails and determines that one jail could be closed, with savings redirected to other community-based harm reduction services.

The brief compares Erie County spending on jails with spending on mental and public health, and makes recommendations for County leaders to further reduce the jail population, capture the savings of decarceration, and solicit public input into the jail closure process. 

This policy brief was drafted by Colleen Kristich, LMSW, a Community Researcher at Partnership for Public Good.

"Shrinking Jails, Rising Costs: Erie County's Wasteful Jail Budget," analyzes the dramatic decline in the county jail population and compares county spending on jails with spending on mental and public health.

The brief finds:

The Erie County jail population is shrinking rapidly.

  • A decrease of 59% in the Holding Center population since September 2019.
  • A decrease of 29% in the Correctional Facility population since September 2019.
  • An 83% drop in the number of sentenced inmates. There are now only 36 inmates total (7%) serving a local sentence at either jail.
  • Over 80% of incarcerated people in the jails are unsentenced (awaiting arraignment, trial, or sentencing).
  • Combined, the jails are at 34% capacity, with 490 people held out of a 1,432-person capacity.

Jail spending does not reflect this change, and fails to capture the savings of a smaller population.

  • The 2021 proposed County Budget maintains full staffing for both jail facilities, with around 700 staff supervising around 500 incarcerated people, even though the jails are at one-third of their capacity.
  • Though the Sheriff's Department has moved most inmates to the Alden facility, the 2021 budget still funds over 400 positions at the Holding Center, to supervise around 150 incarcerated people.
  • The 2021 proposed County Budget allocates $98 million to operate both jail facilities, which is almost double the allocation to Mental Health. This continues a trend; in 2019, for every $1 spend on mental health services, Erie County spent $2 on jails.
  • If the 2021 budget is approved, the cost to county taxpayers will be $28,739 per intake or $160,131 per inmate per year to operate both jails.

The policy brief recommends steps that the County Legislature, County Executive, and County Sheriff can take to right-size the budget and reinvest in community health and community-based harm reduction services.