Overcrowding is again a problem at the Chautauqua County Jail - and there doesn't appear to be an easy solution.
Recently, Sheriff Joe Gerace told the Chautauqua County Legislature's Public Safety and Audit and Control committees that the jail is operating at nearly full capacity. The problem is most of those in the jail are local residents, which means Gerace can't import federal prisoners to the jail. Not importing federal prisoners means the jail will likely be over its budget for 2013.
One potential solution is to spend between $18 and $20 million on a jail addition, an option that also comes with mandated staffing to run the new facility. It is an option Gerace isn't asking county legislators to pursue for a variety of reasons.
Since adding space isn't preferred, the county has to find a way to keep people from getting to the jail in the first place. The easy populations to eliminate would be those in jail who can't make bail after being charged with misdemeanor crimes or to release first-time offenders back into society rather than hold them in jail until they appear in court. That has already happened. About 80 percent of the jail's population is typically waiting for trial, Gerace said, and the county is seeing a higher level of people facing felony charges more than once.
"Of the misdemeanors, I don't remember the exact number but I think it was the 60 percent or 70 percent that were second offenders," Gerace said. "Many of these people we go to the judges for early release or lower bails or (release on their own recognizance) or an ankle bracelet and they have been before the court repeatedly and the courts say no way I am letting them out. They have seen this character over and over again."
Gerace is asking to investigate alternatives to incarceration by creating a task force made up of public safety officials, judges and a myriad of social services officials. Gerace told legislators about the use of ankle bracelets, one alternative to incarceration, that could only be used on six jail prisoners - and one of those six quickly violated the terms of his release shortly after being released from jail.
Still, alternatives to putting someone in jail is a conversation worth having as long as public safety remains the task force's paramount interest.