Letter to Erie County Legislature: Remarks Regarding the Proposed Erie County Jail

Date: December 14, 2023

Colleen Kristich is the Senior Community Researcher at Partnership for the Public Good, and a member of the No New Jails Roundtable, along with ten other local organizations.

Thank you Legislator Johnson for allowing me to speak today on the proposed contract with Foit-Albert Associates and DLR Group to conduct an operational needs assessment at the county jails. Each Legislator received a letter on this item earlier this week from 11 community organizations outlining our concerns with this proposed contract. There are several problems with the proposed contract:

  1. The RFP posted by the County for this project named several, separate needs assessments in the scope of work, but these are absent in the contract.
    1.  Three different needs assessments are named in the RFP:
      1. “criminal justice system” assessment (part C in the scope of work)
      2. Jail “Programming” needs assessment (part B in the scope of work)
      3. Jail “Facility needs assessment” (Parts D and E in the scope of work)
  2. The proposed contract only names one assessment, and calls it the operational needs assessment, which refers to studying the needs of the jail facilities and programs in them. The contract fails to mention the criminal justice system needs assessment at all.
    1. A justice system assessment, when done right, should be it’s own project because it is far-reaching and comprehensive. Done right, a justice system assessment looks at the whole system from start to finish: community resources that prevent crime, policing and arrest practices, courts, jails, and re-entry.
    2. A justice system assessment is the most important one and it should happen first, because any change to the legal system is going to impact the jails significantly.
    3. For example, things like adding more options for pretrial services, making court calendars more efficient, and improving legal representation could all reduce jail admissions and speed up case processing times, which would reduce the jail population.
  3. While an architecture and design firm likely has the expertise to conduct a facility needs assessment, they are the wrong profession to conduct a justice system assessment.
    1. A justice system assessment should be conducted by independent justice system experts as a standalone project. If it’s tacked on as an afterthought or bundled with all these other assessments, it will not receive the careful attention it deserves and it will likely be insufficient.
  4.  If these assessments are skipped, the county will not have the information it needs to make an evidence-based decision.
    1. Determining the future of the Erie County jails is a monumental task. Legislators need to have all the data in order to make the right decision, and the current contract will not give them this. It’s estimated that jail bed construction costs $100,000 per bed. That means that even if conducting a needs assessment costs $1 million, if that assessment saves the county from building even 10 jail beds it doesn’t need, it would pay for itself.
    2. We believe that taking the time that’s required to do a thorough, comprehensive justice system needs assessment is well worth it. Besides the cost savings, improving our justice system to be more equitable and fair and reducing incarceration is a priceless investment that is sorely needed.
  5.  We request the Legislature to table this item until there is a clear and comprehensive plan in place for how a comprehensive, standalone justice system needs assessment will be completed.

    Thank you for your time and consideration.