December 8, 2021

Reforms may not ease jail crowding

Bail reform, pre-trial services seen as options for limiting inmates

In Cortland County’s debate on how to solve overcrowding in the county jail, some have advocated for less bail and more pre-trial services. But not all county officials are convinced that will solve the problem.

New York’s governor sees bail reform as a statewide solution, though. Gov. Andrew Cuomo presented a plan for bail reform at the beginning of the year, which failed to move forward. He’ll try again in 2019.

Bringing it all together

This is the fourth part in reporter Nick Graziano’s five-part piece on the Cortland County Jail. To view all the parts, click here.

Cuomo’s proposed eliminating cash bail for people charged with misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies. He’s also proposed enacting speedier trials.

The reform proposals could limit the number of inmates in the Cortland County Jail, according to county officials, but not enough to solve the jail’s crowding.

Undersheriff Budd Rigg couldn’t estimate how many inmates bail reform would take out of the jail, but it wouldn’t last much more than six months.

“It will have an immediate impact, but not a sustainable impact,” Rigg said.

Once people are sentenced, they’ll be back in jail, he said. Also, he expects there will probably be people who still don’t show up for court.

About 80 percent of the inmate population in the county jail is waiting for adjudication — including those on parole — Rigg said. Not including those on parole, the average population varies between 55 to 70 percent awaiting adjudication.

In 2017, there were 294 inmates in total in the county jail for one to three days waiting to be sentenced. For a wait of 31 to 33 days there were eight inmates. In a period of a year, there were none. But for 367 days and above there were eight inmates — all men.

Rigg said the numbers vary little from year to year.

Current statute

Cortland County District Attorney Patrick Perfetti was not entirely against bail reform, but was happy it did not not pass because it did not provide enough resources for the county.

To him, the state’s bail statute is already good.

“The purpose (of bail) is to ensure a defendant comes to court,” said Cortland County Judge Julie Campbell. “Not to punish someone. It’s like an insurance policy.”

She added bail is determined case-by-case, but the criteria is the same for all judges in Cortland County and the state.

“We have ethical rules to follow,” Campbell said. “I won’t pick a crime and say, ‘This is how it will be looked at.’”

There are other options besides bail, however, Campbell said.

Depending on the case, a judge could agree to a program that may benefit the defendant, such a rehabilitation center through the county’s Alternatives to Incarceration Program rather than time in jail awaiting a case, Campbell said.

“If we have tools and options we’re going to look at all of them,” Campbell said.

The state Unified Court System has its own process that monitors the progress of pending cases, said Lucian Chalfen, director of public information for the court system.

“If a case exceeds those metrics, we look into why that may be occurring,” he said.

In many cases, he said, it is not the fault of one party, such as the court system, prosecution, defense or medical examiner. There could be a wait for DNA results or the defendant was ordered to have a psychiatric exam and doctors could be busy.

New, current options

In August, California passed its own bail reform, eliminating monetary bail. Instead defendants will be released before trial based on an assessment of their risk to public safety.

“Conceptually I don’t oppose that,” Perfetti said. “But before I would go on record and say that I favor it, I want to see what the pre-trial services is like (in the new bail system for California.)”

Cortland County’s Alternatives to Incarceration Program, under the county’s Probation Department, already provides pre-trial services, Perfetti said.

New York judge bail criteria for defendant
• Character, reputation, habits and mental condition.
• Employment and financial resources.
• Family ties and length of residency, if any, in the community.
• Criminal record, if any.
• Previous adjudications as a juvenile delinquent.
• Previous record in responding to court appearances or flight.
• The weight of evidence against the defendant in the pending criminal action and any other factor indicating probability or improbability of conviction.
• The sentence that may be or has been imposed upon conviction.
• Where bail is being set for an appeal, in addition to the foregoing, the court must consider the merit of lack of merit of the appeal and the likelihood of ultimate reversal of the judgment.
• Domestic violence.

On a pre-trial release, individuals are released prior to conviction and sentencing, an option available to a judge to ensure the defendant will appear in court when scheduled, said county Probation Department Director Lisa Cutia.

“There are no conditions imposed for the individual, but we encourage the person to engage in evaluations, treatment, employment or educational or vocational programming that may be necessary to enhance the likelihood of appearing in court and of not engaging in further criminal behavior,” Cutia said in a written statement.

“If we were going to eliminate monetary bail, I would like to see more resources coming from the state to support those pre-trial services efforts,” Perfetti said.

There are a variety of options that could happen pre-trial, he said. An individual could check in with the Alternatives to Incarceration Office periodically.

Alternative services

The Alternatives to Incarceration Office already calls individuals to remind them they have a court appearance — similar to calls reminding you of a doctor’s appointment — Perfetti said.

“Some of these simple efforts that can keep an individual from being in pre-trial detention, yet still gets them to the court so the court can function and do its process, are incredibly cost saving,” Perfetti said. “But they do require some cost to put them in place.”

That comes back to the county needing more resources from the state for its Alternatives to Incarceration office.

However, Perfetti said he goes through a list of who is in the jail every other week and he does not see where there is anyone on the jail list who would otherwise be appropriate for Alternatives to Incarceration supervision. It does happen sometimes, though. Perfetti found three cases this year where he felt the suspect did not need to be detained.

“My job is to do justice,” Perfetti said. “If someone is being detained that shouldn’t be detained, justice dictates that if their defense counsel isn’t going to get them out, I do.”

While Perfetti supports new pre-trial ideas and new Alternatives to Incarceration ideas, he does not support them as an effort to reduce the county jail’s overcrowding issue. He believes the county is already getting the maximum benefit from pre-trial services and Alternatives to Incarceration.

Cortland County parole cases double in one year

The number of parole cases in Cortland County has doubled in a year, said Public Defender Keith Dayton. There’s little the county can do about it.

In the first 11 months of 2018, there were 67 parolee cases, up from 35 cases in the first 11 months of 2017, Dayton said — a 91 percent increase, each case taking up a bed for two weeks to a month.

Outside New York City, the population of inmates on parole in the state is up 10 percent, said Cortland County Sheriff Mark Helms.

About 30 to 45 percent of the Cortland County Jail population are inmates on parole.

Dayton and Helms say the increase comes from a lack of monitoring, compounded with a long wait for parole hearings.

“I don’t know there is any change that we can do,” Helms told legislators earlier this month. “Other than talk to the state. They set those rules.”

The state Commission of Correction has changed over the years, pushing inmates out sooner, putting them on parole and the county is getting them back, Helms said. Once they’re released, they’re getting arrested “quite quickly,” Helms said, but end up in the county jail and will sit there with a parole detainer until their charges are cleared. If they don’t have charges, they’ll sit in the jail until their hearing, he said.

They sit in the county jail as a state detainee, Dayton added, but the county doesn’t get any reimbursement from the state.

The bar has been raised over the years, too, for what accounts as a charge toward a parolee to end up back in jail, Helms said.

“When we first started, if you did a misdemeanor, they would have violated you,” Helms said. “Now they won’t just do it for anything. But they’re coming out quicker, and it don’t take long before we have them back.”

Dayton said his sense, at the moment, for why that is, is because Cortland County has no parole officer. An officer visits just once a month.

That gives parolees a sense they can get away with drug use or other violations, Dayton suggests.

“From a parolee’s point of view, they know in Cortland they’re not super monitored,” Dayton said.

Parolees tend to sit in the jail for two to four weeks, Dayton said. A state administrative law judge is the only one who handles parole hearings. There’s only one in the area that visits the county once a week, Dayton said. Lately it’s been twice a week, though.

The county has no control over the judge. Dayton said he doesn’t know if there is a way to have the judge come to the county more.

State Sen. James Seward (R-Milford) said improving the parole system in the state needs to be discussed as part of the state’s criminal justice reform it’ll propose next year.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has announced criminal justice reform will be a part of his 2019 agenda, by ending cash bail and enacting speedier trails, but details on how that would effect parole cases have not been provided, yet.

“There needs to be appropriate resources to keep people safe,” Seward said. “We need to put resources into parole administration.”