October 28, 2021

County gets jail report from Vera

Cortland Standard file photo

A man enters the Cortland County Jail in this May 2016 file photo.

The inmate population at the Cortland County Jail can be cut in half, according to a report released Friday by the Vera Institute of Justice.

The report, which the nonprofit has been working on for six months at no cost to the county, looked at ways the jail could reduce its population.

“From my perspective, there weren’t any surprises in the report,” said Cortland County Legislator Michael Barylski (D-Cortland), the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee chairman. He said he liked how Vera acknowledges that implementing the recommendations will come with a cost, although he’s not certain how much.

The county has already implemented some suggestions, Sheriff Mark Helms said this morning.

“It’s pretty much in line with what I’ve expected from them,” Helms said, although he didn’t want to comment in depth. “I’ll be curious to see what Rod Miller (president of consultant CRS Inc.) puts in his report to see if the two are the same.”

Vera and county officials will meet June 20 to go into the study in depth.

Barylski said he hopes to get representatives of departments that might be involved with making Vera’s recommendations happen. Some of those departments include the District Attorney’s Office, the Public Defender’s Office, judges, the Probation Department, the Assigned Council Office, Director of Community Service Mark Thayer and Helms.

The Cortland County Jail has been at capacity, or above, since 1997. County policy makers have sought ways to reduce the crowding for years, including consideration of building a new jail.

The current facility has 57 beds, but routinely houses 90 or more inmates, with a special permit for a 30-bed dormitory and what is now a two-bed state variance.

Either building a new jail or adding to it will be expensive — a new 150-bed jail would cost at least $50 million — calling into question whether sinking money into the existing facility would be worthwhile.

The county contracted with both Vera and Rod Miller of CRS to do studies to provide more information. The Miller study — of the jail’s future space needs — is due at the end of June.

The Vera report offered several recommendations to bring the average jail population of 90 inmates down to around 45:

• If the county enforces state reforms to be enacted in 2020 like the mandatory release of people with eligible misdemeanors and non-violent felony cases it could see around a 36% reduction in the jail population.

“We’re doing the majority of this now,” Helms said. “I don’t see it being a big change, but I guess we’ll see.”

Helms said people who stay in the jail before conviction have those days put toward their sentence, so a reduction in pre-trial stays would be balanced by an increase in post-conviction time.

“Most of the people I talk to aren’t happy now when people aren’t in jail for certain crimes,” Helms said.

• If the county invests in a centralized arraignment court, pretrial services and alternatives to incarceration, it could see another 8% reduction. Vera suggests that centralized arraignment would streamline pretrial services so suspects are sent to counseling, substance abuse treatment and other services before they get to the jail.

• Another 11% reduction could come from creating a hub court to “streamline the processing of cases where the person is detained or held for a violation of probation treatment.” That would reduce waits because not all municipal courts convene daily.

It also suggested working with the state parole office to reduce the number of people in jail on technical violations, reviewing cases of probation violations and increasing case conferencing and review.

“If the county first invests in the recommendations in this report — that are significantly less expensive than a new jail construction — the county will have an average daily jail population of approximately 50 people, all of whom can be safely and effectively managed in the current jail without boarding out or overcrowding,” the report states.

The report also suggests the county create a criminal justice coordinator position to oversee the implementation of the recommendations.

The report did not specify a cost associated with implementing these recommendations.

Barylski said he understands that many of the recommendations will have a cost associated with them and that it will be up to the Legislature to determine what services it wants to put money toward.

Barylski said as they determine how to implement the recommendations the current fiscal state of the county will be taken into account.

“If there were unlimited resources, you’d do everything and hopefully we will strive to do that, but I have a sense that will have to figure out what we can accomplish with the resources we have available to us,” he said.