October 24, 2021

County continues to deliberate options after getting jail reports

Stay or build new - what to do with the jail?

Kevin Conlon/contributing photographer

Cortlandville Town Justice Lenore LeFevre, left, meets after court Tuesday with Assistant Public Defender Elizabeth Marris, center, and Assistant District Attorney Jessica M. Weyant.

A person gets arrested in connection with a crime, waits at a police facility until a judge is available.

For most misdemeanors and non-violent felonies, the suspect is released without bail, or perhaps to an alternative-to-incarceration program or drug treatment.

A recent study by the Vera Institute of Justice would create a number of alternatives – all meant to prevent that person from ever going into the jail. The seven-month project, done at no cost to the county, would reduce the county’s jail population 50% – a figure jail executives disagree with.

However, Vera’s plan would require new spaces, new people, and new money. Does Cortland County have the resources to execute Vera’s plan? And if not, can it get them?

And the big question remains – the county began looking at these alternatives to prevent the need for a new, $50 million or $60 million jail. If it follows Vera’s plan, would it need a new jail? And if not, would it need to renovate the existing jail?

Among the other unanswered questions:
• How much space will the county need to implement these things and does it have it?
• How many more people will need to be hired in areas like the Public Defender’s office, court staff and counseling or treatment services?
• How much will all this cost and where will that money come from?

What’s the answer?

The answer to most of those questions, county officials admit, is “We have no idea.”

Several factors lie behind the uncertainty. The Vera report was based on 2017 jail data and processes. They’ve changed.
Further, the non-profit’s recommendations would create a centralized arraignment and perhaps a hub court. Space would need to be found for that, perhaps people hired. Other suggestions would require more drug treatment space, cooperation from the state parole division, maybe hire a criminal justice coordinator.

Neighboring Tompkins County, which enacted many similar measures, had to seek state Legislature approval to create a new judge position.

And the report was based on a slice in time. A second report, by Rod Miller, president of CRS, Inc. of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, would project for the coming years how much space the jail would need, incorporating both Vera’s suggestions and a variety of other trends.

The last assessment was done in 2007 and recommended the county plan for 140 beds by 2025 and about 230 by 2035, but most of its models have been proven inaccurate. The existing jail was built in 1992 with a planned capacity of 50 inmates. It has been crowded since 1997, but now can hold up to 89 with special permission from the state.

That report has yet to be filed.

Vera’s take

The biggest issue, Vera says, is the influx of crime around drugs – up 386% since 2008.

“The real driver of the increased jail population is people who are entering the jail with substance use needs reflected in their charges – drug- and theft-related charges – and perhaps some behavioral-health needs in terms of housing instability, mental health or again substance use issues that have gone unchecked,” said Insha Rahman, Vera’s director of strategy and new initiatives. “You can use the jail to address that right? It will be a temporary solution.”

Vera suggests to main tasks, according to Rahman and Sandra van den Heuvel, a program associate.

• Prevent people from ever getting into the jail, using pretrial reforms, a centralized arraignment court part and investing in pretrial services.
• Reduce the jail stay for people with parole violations by working with the state’s parole programs.

“In 2017 there were 202 admissions to the jail pretrial, now had bail reform been enacted in 2017 only 42 of those people would have been admitted into the jail – that’s an overall jail reduction of 35%,” van den Heuvel said.

However, Sheriff Mark Helms said has already enacted many of the bail reforms that become mandatory in 2020.

“When you say this is what’s going to make our numbers go down and we’re already doing it, odds are it’s not going to make our numbers go down,” Helms said Monday.

Streamlining the judicial process

The time an inmate spends in jail between arrest and adjudication has increased to 20 days from 12 between 2011 and 2017, Vera reports. And people held on parole violations are held longer, too.

Reducing both those periods would reduce the jail population.

Vera also suggests diverting subjects to alternatives to incarceration before they’re ever booked into the jail. The county spends 0.1% of its budget on alternatives, but 4.3% on the jail.

That’s where centralized arraignment would come in. Vera recommends establishing one arraignment court in Cortland City Court, staffed by one full-time judge and representatives from the Public Defender’s Office and the District Attorney’s Office.

However, Sheriff Mark Helms said many inmates are already diverted to alternatives to incarceration during arraignment.

“ATI isn’t at arraignment but they’re still releasing them to ATI and then ATI has a follow up with them, so they don’t have to come to jail to be introduced into ATI,” he said.

However, a central arraignment court would be a plus for judges like Cortlandville Town Judge Lenore Lefevre, who oversees one of the busiest courts in the county.

“A centralized arraignment plan would make the process easier for judges and defense counsel,” she said in an email. “Under the current system, there is no predictable schedule for ‘off-hour’ arraignments in the town courts, making it more difficult for everyone involved,” she said.

But creating centralized arraignment would require cooperation from everyone involved she said: judges, the Assigned Counsel Office, the Public Defender’s Office, the District Attorney’s Office, law enforcement, the jail and the county Legislature.

“There are those things that are entirely within the judicial system that the legislature is not going to be able to make the decision to make those things happen,” said Legislator Michael Barylski (D-Cortlandville). However, he said that doesn’t mean legislators aren’t reaching out.

Getting people resources

The Vera representatives said that in order to keep people from entering the jail to begin with – “narrowing the front door” – services like drug treatment, which may already be provided in the county, need to be expanded.

A survey conducted in the jail on inmates needs in March 2018 found that 85% of people identified as having some substance use issue, van den Heuvel said.

“Where the focus needs to be and the priority needs to be for the county is to invest up front in the referrals that keep people out of the jail entirely and link them to all of the great resources that are here and in place, but at scale so that those immediate referrals people don’t have to wait a couple of weeks to get in to treatment,” Rahman said.

However, the problem comes when people won’t stay in treatment or there isn’t enough space.

“Motivation is incredibly important part of this, particularly for that population of recidivist people,” said Mark Thayer, the director of community services for the county’s mental health department.

“It’s hard to go off drugs and hard to stay in treatment when you’re feeling terrible,” said Nicole Albro, a probation supervisor for the county.

Thayer said many people in the county have sought treatment from five or six providers.

Forty to 60% of drug addicts relapse, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

“I really think the types of resources that need to be created are community-based intensive resources focused on this population of folks,” he said.

To get that done though, it would take expanding services.

“We do not have sufficient capacity in our system to meet the needs of every single person who goes through the criminal justice system,” he said. “We need to do different things to engage people in this process and to really help them utilize the resources that are available. It really isn’t just, hey you need another counselor and then you’ll be able to get people in and then there won’t be a problem.”

Jail here to help

Also, Undersheriff Budd Rigg said, the jail can make sure people get treatment – they’re already signed up for it.
That’s not a guarantee if the subjects are on their own.

“When they’re out and they’re not getting the services they need, what are they going to do? They’re going to commit more crimes,” Rigg said. “So, it may dip for a while, but eventually it’s going to come back and probably higher because they’re out there committing more crimes because they don’t have that catch-basin.”

Working with parole

Vera recommended meeting with the local parole division to address people who are admitted to the jail on technical violations and in the jail for longer periods of time.

The county already has.

“Look, we’ve met with parole over the years, it’s like going to the governor and telling him what to do, it doesn’t work,” Helms said. “Can we continue to meet with them and they could make some changes? Possibly, but over the years in our careers, have we’ve ever seen that? Not from meeting with them.”

Vera also recommended working with the state’s parole division to create a local program that would include expanding jail-based services. It’s just not an option, Helms said. There’s no space.

The jail offers a number of services, including naloxone training, drug treatment, vocational training and peer services group session. The jail has just the law library and a visiting room to accomodate all those programs, and a recent roof repair didn’t add any space.

“I very much appreciate that they helped us fix the day-to-day stuff we needed,” he said.

He hears comments about “oh it looks nice” and people think recent repairs made the jail new again.

“Well, a car with no engine looks nice but it still won’t get you very far,” he said.

Maybe the county could add the programs if it makes “major alterations” to the jail, Helms said, but it’s unlikely.

“I guess the big thing I would stress is that our only answer isn’t that we just need a new jail,” Helms said. “I think that’s what a lot of people would like to make it out that that’s all I want, but it’s not. If we can make this usable then I’m good with that. We’ve been looking at it for four years, I just don’t know if that’s possible. I want us to work together for once and for all to put this to rest.”

Working together

Even with implementing all of Vera’s recommendations Helms and Rigg do not think it’s possible to avoid building a new jail.

“I would love to be proven wrong because it’d be great, but I don’t know how realistic it is,” Rigg added.

Barylski said it’s premature to say what the outcome might be until the Legislature and other department heads involved in the criminal justice system can discuss both reports from Vera and Rod Miller.

A group may consider the steps, but how it would work hasn’t been decided, yet.

Helms said the county shouldn’t create a criminal justice coordinator to oversee implementation of the recommendations, as Vera suggested. Helms said those interactions are already happening.

“I don’t know what authority this person would have to tell any of the three of us specifics on what we’d have to do,” he said. “It’s extra money. It’s a position that personally I don’t feel is needed.”

He said the best thing to do would be to keep moving forward.

“Every time we get close, the legislators stop,” Helms said. “They’re probably going to want to stop now, it’s an election year, it’s tough for all of us. It’s not time to stop, it’s time to find an answer. This is something that can be solved, we just need to do it.”