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UNLESS CRIME GOES AWAY, PROBLEMS WITH ERIE COUNTY JAILS WON'T, EITHER

Erie County jails have gotten the right kind of direction from a recent ruling by U.S. Magistrate Judge Leslie G. Foschio. But this court case doesn't resolve the county's long-range problems with providing places to put its prisoners.

Just about everyone wants crime dealt with firmly. Without the realistic threat of jail, it's just too easy for a criminal to laugh at the system. But determination to use the jail deterrent aggressively also brings up the necessity to find space where judges can rule that wrongdoers should be sent.

Erie County has longstanding problems with conditions and capacity at its downtown Holding Center and its prison in Alden. It also has a peculiar division of prison management that is rare for New York counties and should probably be changed.

Foschio's ruling establishes reasonable rights of prisoners without going beyond what is necessary to what could be viewed as too generous. After all, before his finding last fall that overcrowding at the Holding Center was depriving prisoners of basic constitutional rights, conditions were deplorable.

That overcrowding packed prisoners into the chapel, recreation areas and other spaces never intended for the mattresses the inmates too often had to sleep on. Some prisoners had no privacy whatever. Conditions have improved, with some prisoners moved from the holding center to Alden. The Foschio order sets necessary minimum guidelines and will guard against deteriorating conditions.

His rules that prisoners get a bed to sleep on with bedding and a blanket, or that women have more privacy, or that use of the atrium, chapel or other space for housing prisoners be allowed only in emergencies and for no longer than five days -- none of these prescribes anything beyond acceptable minimum conditions.

Erie County now complies with federal and state limits on jail capacity. But that compliance also rests upon a special break granted to Erie County by the state Corrections Commission, allowing the county to double-bunk 140 or 150 prisoners at Alden.

Were that waiver and double-bunking suddenly revoked, the county would not be in compliance.

Everyone understands the waiver to be temporary. It cannot persist forever. So County Hall must soon decide how to expand Alden by about 200 beds to eliminate the double-bunking. Just how to do that or when is not yet determined. It might involve expansion of permanent facilities at Alden. Or it might involve renting for a temporary period large trailer-like quarters that hold 40 prisoners each (at about $75,000 a month for four of these trailers).

The Gorski administration has begun to move toward a study of the possibilities, subject to legislative concurrence. One option might be to lease the trailers for three or four years, at which time the situation would be re-evaluated with an eye on permanent expansion.

This strategy has certain benefits. Some rates of crime are turning down; it makes sense to watch the trend before building permanent spaces. Waiting could also help Erie County space out large added capital costs beyond those required soon to construct the new court facilities ordered by Albany.

The unsettled jail situation also brings up the issue of who should be in charge of the prisoners from day to day. Erie is one of only three counties in the state to split responsibilities for handling prisoners between the county executive, who's responsible for the Alden Correctional Facility, and the sheriff, who manages the holding center. In all other counties, the sheriff bears total responsibility.

Once the voters settle the contested race for a new sheriff on Nov. 4, this division of prison management ought to be examined. Responsibility for the jails ought to be lodged with one official or the other, but not both.

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