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October 17, 2014

"Cities Look for Ways to Get Free of Empty Jails"

The title of this post is the headline of this intriguing Wall Street Journal piece from earlier this week, which carried the subheading "Drop in Crime and Lighter Sentences Swell the Number of Jails for Sale."  Here are excerpts:

After rising rapidly for decades, the number of people behind bars peaked in 2009 and has been mostly falling ever since. Inmates at federal and state prisons stood at 1.57 million in 2013, down 2.7% from a peak of 1.62 million in 2009, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

In some states, the decline has been more pronounced, including New York, which saw an 8.8% decline in federal and state inmates, and California, which saw a 20.6% drop. The inmate population in city and county jails has also fallen, even as some states have shifted prisoners to those facilities....

The incarceration rate is declining largely because crime has fallen significantly in the past generation. In addition, many states have relaxed harsh sentencing laws passed during the tough-on-crime 1980s and 1990s, and have backed rehabilitation programs, resulting in fewer low-level offenders being locked up. States from Michigan to New Jersey have changed parole processes, leading more prisoners to leave earlier. On a federal level, the Justice Department under Attorney General Eric Holder has pushed to reduce sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.

While the reduction in crime and incarceration has many social benefits, municipalities are having a tough time finding new uses for prisons. Old office buildings can be converted to apartment buildings or hotels. Outdated government buildings can be used for retail or as schools. Even some prisons, mainly those with historic architecture and located in city centers, have been converted in recent years to hotels, including Boston’s Charles Street Jail, which is now known as the Liberty Hotel.

But most prisons are drab structures located in rural areas, offering few opportunities for reuse. The result is that the number of prison properties on the market is rising. New York state has closed 17 prisons and juvenile-justice facilities since 2011, following the rollback of the 1970s-era Rockefeller drug laws, which mandated lengthy sentences for low-level offenders.

So far, the state has found buyers for 10 of them, at prices that range from less than $250,000 to about $8 million for a facility in Staten Island, often a fraction of what they cost to build. It hopes to sell most of the remainder.

In Texas, where more nonviolent offenders are being put in rehabilitation programs, the state has closed three prisons since 2011. Among them is a 1,060-bed facility called the Central Unit that the city of Sugar Land is seeking to buy from the state and convert to an aviation-focused business park, given its proximity to an airport.

October 17, 2014 at 01:11 PM | Permalink


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Today, 33 of 120 Kentucky counties no longer have jails, because the County Fiscal Courts can no longer afford to maintain the jails and keep them operating. Five years ago, only 10 Kentucky counties did not have jails. The Lexington-Fayette Urban County governments spends about $30.5 million (about 11% of its total budget) on community corrections, including operating its jail, which houses 2,000 inmates daily in a community with a population of only 308,000. The jail stays full because relatively few pretrial detainees can make the bonds set for them, and it is the policy of the local judges not to grant any bond in the cases of probationers and parolees who have been arrested for violating the terms of their probation or parole, who are held in jail until their case is resolved. Also, the local County Attorney's Office usually recommends many (6 to 12) months of "shelf time", for misdemeanor defendants who are convicted and placed on probation. At least half of those probationers will eventually violate, be revoked and have to actually serve out those sentences, at great expense to the local taxpayers.

Posted by: Jim Gormley | Oct 17, 2014 7:20:31 PM

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