The "Justice" Center?

An irritating buzzing noise followed by a loud, hollow "click" signifies that the 12 gauge steel door in front of me is now "unlocked." I pull it forward, entering into a small open area before a second door with thick plastic windows. I hear muted noises as I watch the individuals interacting inside, and the heavy outer door finally clicks shut behind me. A deputy at the desk in the middle of the room "buzzes" this last door open. I am now standing inside a "housing pod" at the Onondaga County Justice Center _ the $42 million jail in downtown Syracuse, just up the street from the Everson Museum of Art.

How Many People Are Incarcerated In Onondaga County?

Opened in 1995 with 616 cells (twice the capacity of the old jail), the new jail is already overcrowded, with up to 670 individuals being held on any given day. On November 4, there were 650 individuals in the custody of the Justice Center, but 40 of these were actually located in Jamesville, several miles outside of Syracuse. To cope with overcrowding, temporary housing has been set up outside the Jamesville Penitentiary _ exacerbating problems with access to attorneys, family, and other services. Inmates from the Justice Center cannot be legally housed inside the Jamesville Penitentiary, because they have not been sentenced. The vast majority of those held at the Justice Center have not been convicted _ they have only been charged and are awaiting their day in court. Ironically, Jamesville, with 484 inmates on November 4, is also experiencing overcrowding, and many inmates who have been sentenced to the Jamesville Facility continue being held at the Justice Center due to the lack of space.

Who Goes to Jail?

The majority of individuals at the Justice Center are nonviolent offenders, often charged with misdemeanors. Many are parents who might be able to maintain their employment and support their children if allowed to await trial as free members of the community. Others are children themselves _ of those incarcerated on November 4, 12% were 18 years old or younger; almost half were 25 years old or younger. Almost 90% were male, and nearly 60% were black _ disturbing in a county that is less than 10% black (visit www. communityalternatives.org/downloads.html for a report on racial disparities in local arrest and sentencing practices). Due to the bail system, as well as disparities in arrest practices and definitions of "crime," those held are often poor or working class. Over 90 of those at the Justice Center on November 4 were being held on bails of $5,000 or less; some bails were as low as $100-$500.

To support Jail Ministry's work of supporting and advocating for people in the Syracuse jail, please call 474-1877.

_Jessica Maxwell