COLONIE — The number of inmates in the Albany County Jail dropped by 29 percent from 2018 to 2019, according to data released earlier this month by the state Department of Criminal Justice Services.
According to Jail Population Report in New York State, in Albany County, the number of inmates went from 587 in 2018 to 416 in 2019. It follows a trend of declining inmates dating to at least 2010, when the jail had 698 inmates. From 2010 to 2019, the number of inmates housed at the Albany Shaker Road facility fell by 40.4 percent, according to the DCJS.
The jail has the capacity to house about 1,040 inmates and as of late has been running at about 35 percent capacity, said Sheriff Craig Apple. About 25 percent of the inmates are actually serving time as dictated by an Albany County judge. The rest are boarded out from other counties who don’t have room, are inmates awaiting transfer to state or federal prisons or they are inmates awaiting sentencing or other court dates.To make use of the vacant space in the jail, Apple is converting 100 empty cells into a homeless shelter, which should come online in the next few weeks, he said.
The benefits are two fold, he said, vacant space at the jail is put to better use and the county will save money by paying outside, private entities — like a motel — to house the homeless.
“There is a shortage of adequate transitional housing in the area, and I want to utilize space that we no longer need, to provide a clean independent housing atmosphere for those trying to get their lives back on track,” Apple said in 2019 when the idea was launched. “These individuals would also have the opportunity to get connected with other services to assist them in being successful, when they move into their own permanent housing.”
The cells will not have bars and the doors will not be locked. The residents can come and go as they please and will have access to job placement and agencies that can assist them in getting permanent housing.
The new rooms could very well serve the same population staying at the jail under more restrictive terms.
“When they get out, if they have nowhere to go, we can house them here. If they get out and they do what I’m learning is called the shelter shuffle, bouncing from shelter to shelter and then ending up back in the county jail, nobody wins when you get back in jail.”
The Number of inmates in 2019 does not reflect the current so called bail reform, or the elimination of cash bail for a number crimes while the defendants’ cases work their way through court. That did not go into effect until Jan. 1.
Fewer inmates in Albany County follows a national trend at all levels of incarceration and decline is based as much on policy decisions as it does a reduction in actual crime.
Though, the U.S. still is far ahead of other industrialized countries as far as incarceration rates. According to a 2018 report by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 2016 nearly 2.2 million adults were behind federal bars, or 655 per 100,000 people. The country of El Salvador has the second largest incarceration rate with 618 per 100,000 living behind bars and Rwanda is a distant third with 464 per 100,000. France and Germany incarcerate 102 and 77 people, respectively, for every 100,000 residents.
When state and local jails are considered, according to the Pew Research Center, who cited statistics from the BJS, the incarceration rate spikes to 860 per 100,000 at the end of 2016, the most recent finalized figures. Statistics for 2017 will likely come out in April and if trends continue, as expected, the number will continue to shrink.
The nation’s incarceration rate peaked at 1,000 per 100,000 adults between 2006 and 2008. And, according to Pew, it has declined every year since and now stands at its lowest point since 1996.
Locally, the number of inmates is shrinking at other counties too. From 2010 to 2019, the Saratoga County jail has 10. 4 percent less inmates, Schenectady is down by 20.3 percent and Rensselaer County is down 39.6 percent.
Crime and policy
The crime rate is shrinking, which of course indicates there are less criminals and less inmates, but the reasons behind the shrinking jail population is also due to changes in criminal justice policy.
For example, index crimes in Albany County, according to the state DCJS, are down from 9,183 in 2014 to 8,361 in 2018, according to the DCJS. Violent crime did increase over that same time frame, from 1,003 to 1,109, while property crimes dropped to 7,252 from 8,180. A reason for violent crime’s increase, though, is expanding what constitutes rape and from 2014 to 2016 the number of rapes in Albany County went from 46 to 107.
Index crimes across New York state, excluding New York City, dropped from 261,612 in 2009 to 174,434 in 2018, a drop of 33.3 percent according to the DCJS. Nationwide, in the decade that ended in 2017, violent crime was down 19 percent, according to BJS.
Also, over the last decade, there have been policy changes in how society deals with criminals that have led to less people behind bars. The Rockefeller Drug Laws, which mandated long prison terms for relatively low level drug crimes, have been rolled back and the “three strikes and you’re out” policy of incarcerating a person for life after three felonies is no longer the norm neither at the federal level nor in most states.
“Changes in prosecution and judicial sentencing patterns, as well as criminal laws, also may play a role in the declining number and share of people behind bars,” according to the Pew Research Center. “Recent reductions in prison sentences for thousands of inmates who were serving time for drug-related crimes, for example, have driven a substantial decline in the federal prison population. That, in turn, has contributed to the broader decline in the overall incarcerated population.”
There is a financial incentive to less inmates too. It costs about $34,704 per year to house a federal inmate. The average to house a local inmate is about 31,000, according to the Vera Institute of Justice.
Apple said there are currently 72 less corrections officers on the Albany County payroll than when the jail was at capacity, a savings of about $5 million a year.
In Albany County, which is not unlike counties across the country, there are a number of programs that reduce the recidivism rates including the Sheriff’s Heroin Addiction Recovery Program, where inmates get treatment for their addiction to opioids while they serve time for the associated crime. And there is a program to help vets who find themselves on the wrong side of the law get their lives back on track.
Across the country there are alternative to incarceration programs geared more towards rehabilitation than incarceration that allow people to pay their debt to society and move on to live productive lives.
“We want jails to be for what they are intended, the really bad people,” Apple said.