October 24, 2021

Vera Institute wants county for 3-year study

Cortland County Jail

Joe McIntyre/staff photographer

The Cortland County Jail is pictured in this February 2019 file photo.

Legislators will hear a presentation from the Vera Institute of Justice Dec. 10 about joining a three-year study on how western, central and upstate New York communities are handling criminal justice reform.

Albany and Oneida counties have already agreed to join the study of how the state’s new criminal justice reforms affect counties outside New York City. Albany and Oneida counties have already agreed to take part. Broome, Erie, Greene, and Cortland have been invited.

However, before deciding whether to join, Legislator Cathy Bischoff (D-Cortland), the chairwoman of the Criminal Justice Proposal Committee, wants to ensure Vera will get qualitative information rather than just quantitative data.

“What I really need to know is what are the conditions that defendants are presenting that we find ourselves providing supervision instead of releasing them,” Bischoff said. “That’s the story I want Vera to tell along with the data because that’s the story that’s not being told with bail reform right now.”

If you go

What: Vera presentation on justice reform study
When: 4 p.m., Dec. 10
Where: Third floor, Cortland County Office Building; 60 Central Ave., Cortland

The state enacted legislation earlier this year that eliminates cash bail for misdemeanors and non-violent felonies to reduce the number of people held in jail pre-trial.

New legislation also requires courts to limit the number of delays in a person’s trial process and requires both the prosecution and defense to share all evidence before a trial starts.

Vera, a nonprofit research and policy organization wants to study the effect bail reform would have on communities outside of New York City.

“As potentially one of the most far-reaching pieces of bail reform legislation passed in recent history, the opportunity for evaluation and measuring impact is profound,” a release from Vera states. “There is an urgent need to carefully monitor the implementation of the reforms so that successes can be noted, challenges can be addressed, and the unintended consequences can be readily spotted.”

However, not every county official is excited to join.

“I don’t plan on participating at all,” Sheriff Mark Helms said.

He said information from the jail is given to the state and that organizations like Vera will use that data, but he opposes working hands-on with the group.

“I did that once, I learned my lesson the first time,” he said. “They’re an agenda-driven group and I don’t want any part of that.”

In June, Vera gave the Cortland County Legislature recommendations on how to reduce its jail population after studying the county’s jail population for six months, at no cost to the county.

The new study would look at two areas: a statewide analysis of the jail population and an analysis of pretrial release and bail decisions in the six participating counties.

Vera’s six-county analysis would examine the effect of the new laws on:

  • Pretrial release.
  • Bail setting and bail making.
  • Failure to appear and rearrest rates.
  • The perceptions of system actors — courts, lawyers and others — and people involved in the system.
  • Arrests, sentencing and dispositions.

Bischoff said she suggested Vera also look at why a person is in jail or returning to jail, including addiction and mental health issues, and how bail reform influences those issues.

“If we don’t understand why that’s happening and we’re not addressing their issues, then we won’t learn much of anything,” Bischoff said. “We need to know the back story.”

She also hopes Vera will focus on the economic effect the reform legislation has on Cortland County, noting that while the county is willing to take on the changes it will be an “uphill climb.”

“We are not New York City,” Bischoff said. “We do not have a gazillion service agencies out there. Cortland is an economically modest community. This will be a real challenge for us and it’s that challenge that I want to be as much as part of the narrative as the data itself.”

Legislator Michael Barylski (D-Cortlandville), the chairman of the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee, said he has not made up his mind on whether the county should participate, although he is open to hearing what Vera has to present.

“I am skeptical as to any benefit to the county for participating in the proposed study,” Barylski said. “Clearly, Vera has a position, and it is my understanding that it was involved in drafting the criminal justice reform legislation. Because of that, it would be difficult to consider Vera an unbiased agency. Interpreting the results or effect of the criminal justice reform legislation will be somewhat subjective, and some individuals may well interpret the results very differently. Cortland County will probably be in the best position to interpret its own results.”

He wants to see data on how to provide intervention to people before they reach the jail, what the jail population looks like after the reform takes effect, and what the jail population looks like post-sentencing.