November 28, 2021

Number of inmates at county jail on rise

Shenandoah Briere/staff reporter

A Cortland County sheriff’s van backs out from an entrance to the jail July of 2019 in this Cortland Standard file photo.

The number of inmates in the Cortland County Jail is beginning to creep back up, a result of more warrants being issued by the courts for people not showing up for court appearances, said Sheriff Mark Helms and District Attorney Patrick Perfetti.

“The last couple of weeks we’ve seen an increase,” Helms said. “I’m seeing a lot of what I predicted would happen.”

The jail had 49 inmates as of this morning, Helms said. In August and September of this year there were around 30 inmates.

In September of 2019 the jail housed 79 people before dropping to the mid-50s in December. Helms said that drop was because lawyers were acting like bail reform — which let certain people out based on the crime they committed — was already in place. In January of this year the jail population was in the high 50s, low 60s and then in the 60s in February.

Helms said the number of inmates dropped quickly when COVID hit because the courts had pretty much shut down.

“They weren’t sending us anyone,” Helms said this morning. “People were getting out, but people weren’t coming in.”

Helms has said bail reform would lead to people getting arrested for crimes, arraigned and then let go. Under the law, which took effect at the beginning of the year, judges can no longer set monetary bail for most misdemeanors and felonies unless they are sex-related or violent offenses

Some of those who are released commit more crimes and don’t show for court hearings, Helms said.

When suspects don’t show for court, warrants are issued and they are sent to the jail to await their next hearing.

With the courts reopened and beginning to see people again after shutting down due to the coronavirus pandemic, warrants are quickly beginning to add up, Perfetti said.

“This was a predicted event from the change to the bail statute,” he said.

Helms said now when people are sent to the jail it’s about eight or nine people coming in at a time.

The number of people it was seeing due to the pandemic, even stopping a trial mid-procedure. Between March and July when the court system began slowly increasing its activities — it issued only 58 warrants, according to the 6th Judicial District, which oversees Cortland County courts. In the same period last year, it issued 247.

As things got underway though, the number of warrants being issued increased from 16 in March and two in April to 24 in August and 49 in September. The number of warrants issued in September is just one above the number issued in the same month last year.

Helms said he received nine warrants Thursday.

“If I had a crystal ball, I’d say we’re going to keep inching our way up,” Helms said about the jail population.

The Cortland County Jail had been at capacity, or above, since 1997, until bail reform and COVID caused some decline. Helms has been saying he expected to see some decline due to bail reform and then a steady increase.

County policy makers have sought ways to reduce the crowding for years, including considering building a new jail. The current facility was built for 57 inmates, but routinely housed 90 or more inmates, with a special permit for a 30-bed dormitory and what is now a two-bed state variance.

The county had received recommendations in 2019 from Vera, a criminal justice nonprofit, with ways to look at cutting the jail population in half.

However, nothing has been done with those recommendations.

“I’ve seen nothing from anybody on that,” Helm said.

Legislator Cathy Bischoff (D-Cortland) had been the chairwoman of the Criminal Justice Proposal Committee, which was tasked with reviewing what Vera had suggested and recommending what the Legislature should do next.

“At this time, and as chair of the Health and Human Services Committee, my primary focus is on COVID,” she said. “As COVID abates and we are able to return to somewhat normal operations, I look forward to working with the county, the sheriff, all our departments and our partners to pursue those recommendations.”