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Sheriff files lawsuit against N.Y. county in opposition to plans to close prison

The lawsuit argues the changes to a law effectively strip the sheriff of his control over the prison and “curtails the power of an elected official (the sheriff)”


Anne Hayes

By Anne Hayes

SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Onondaga County Sheriff Toby Shelley filed a lawsuit Tuesday against the county and legislature in opposition to plans to close the county prison he oversees, according to court documents.

The lawsuit — filed in the state Supreme Court — argues that county legislature acted unlawfully when it voted to change the language of a local law to pave the way to close the Jamesville Correctional Facility and move the inmates and guards to the downtown jail in the Justice Center.

The lawsuit argues the changes effectively strip Shelley of his control over the prison and “curtails the power of an elected official (the sheriff).”

The lawsuit states that the county would need a referendum in order to strip him of his powers over the prison. In support of his case, the lawsuit points out that a referendum was mandated when the power to control the prison was transferred from the county executive to the sheriff in 2017. A referendum would require voters to approve the local law change.

In an interview with Tuesday Shelley said that the power to strip an elected official of certain powers should be in the hands of the people.

“The sheriff does not work for the county legislature,” Shelley said. “The Sheriff works for the people.”

Closing the prison was proposed in 2022 by then-Sheriff Eugene Conway and County Executive Ryan McMahon before Shelley took office in January.

Closing the prison was approved by the county legislature on Feb. 7 through two separate votes. The first vote was to defund positions at the Jamesville prison and create those same positions at the downtown jail. The second vote — which is the primary subject of Shelley’s lawsuit — was to remove all mentions of the word corrections from a local law in the county charter and administrative code pertaining to the sheriff’s office.

A representative for the county attorney’s office has previously said that changing the language of the law does not strip Shelley of his powers. They said Shelley could still create or disband any division in his office but would no longer be required to have a corrections division.

Justin Sayles, a spokesperson for the county executive’s office, said that he had not heard about the lawsuit as of Tuesday afternoon.

The law change removes the requirement for a corrections division within the sheriff’s office. This lays the foundation to make the closure possible. Shelley is asking the court to strike down the local law change, according to the lawsuit.

Shelley said that he would prefer the legislature just rescind the resolution so there would not have to be a legal battle.

While the lawsuit pertains to the Jamesville closure, it is also a way for Shelley to prevent the legislature from encroaching on the powers of the sheriff’s office.

An ongoing debate

This lawsuit is Shelley’s most recent attempt to push back against closing the prison.

The same day Conway and McMahon announce the closure proposal in December 2022, Shelley held a news conference at the Jamesville prison alongside corrections officers and their union representative to voice his concerns about the proposal.

He urged the county not to rush into a merger without enough proof that the two facilities can be merged safely. He also cited concerns about possible overcrowding.

Shelley also said he wanted to see evidence that the merger was the only solution to the county’s problems of meeting its obligations from a settlement of a previous lawsuit regarding in-person arraignment.

Under a 2014 court settlement, New York State agreed to guarantee that criminal defendants have a lawyer at every arraignment – the first court appearance when a judge typically decides whether or not the person will be held in jail as the case progresses. Jail deputies are needed to transport arrested individuals to court at specific times to make sure a lawyer is present with them during this important initial appearance.

McMahon has repeatedly stressed that the county is at risk of not meeting the terms of the settlement due to not having enough staff to take inmates to arraignments. He asked the legislature to act quickly.

He has also stated that his office had been discussing a potential merger of the facilities for over a year before it was announced.

McMahon also cited ongoing staffing shortages in general as another reason for the merger.

Merger already stalled

When the proposal was approved, McMahon set a tentative April 1 deadline to close the prison. He said that he may be willing to delay the merger if he saw the sheriff acting in a good faith effort to execute the merger.

Shelley had previously said he would not move any inmates or corrections officers from Jamesville to the downtown jail until a feasibility study could be conducted and the state Commission of Correction deemed the plan safe.

McMahon said that the merger would need to move forward regardless of Shelley’s reservations

“You know, as elected officials, you don’t get to ignore the legislative branch of government,” McMahon said in February.

However, the merger has already been delayed by months. The merger will be delayed until the end of the year — potentially longer — due to renovations at the downtown jail.

On March 23, Benjamin Yaus, the first chief deputy county attorney, sent a letter to McMahon and Shelley announcing that the deadline for the merger will be extended.

The letter states that the state Commission of Corrections reduced the number of beds that could be used in the downtown jail while the facility undergoes construction. The letter did not offer a time frame for completing the renovation.

The sheriff’s office believes that the construction could take at least a year. A county representative said that the renovations could be completed by the end of the year.

The lawsuit could further delay the project if not halt it.

The Jamesville prison can hold 538 inmates. It opened in June 1983 and cost $9.8 million. The Justice Center jail in Syracuse opened in 1995. While the Justice Center is primarily a holding facility for people who have not been convicted, the Jamesville facility mostly serves convicted individuals sentenced to a year or less in prison.

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