Housing of some county jail inmates questioned

MAYVILLE — So do all inmates housed in the Chautauqua County Jail belong there?

According to some local officials, many don’t.

Excessive bail amounts, inmate health issues and even judges using jail as a means to garner a plea deal, have all been cited as reasons why some inmates may be better off somewhere else.

Such was the case made by several members of the county’s Community Justice Council, a group that seeks to reduce the jail’s population and enhance alternatives to incarceration.

Attorney James Pelletter, representing the county public defender’s office, argued the “biggest problem” feeding the jail population involves judges incarcerating defendants — not as a matter of public safety, but as a means to get a plea.

“It’s a simple fact of life that it’s easier to get a plea from someone when they’re incarcerated,” Pelletter said. “Often times, we have people who are given an offer … that if they plead guilty to this or that, they can get released today. Anytime I have an offer like that, the first thing that comes to my mind is this is not a community safety issue having this person in jail; it’s a lever to get a plea.”

Pelletter and other members also decried excessive bail amounts for non-violent, low-level offenders.

“Can any judge really come to the conclusion that public safety will somehow be served by locking a person up — for a cost of $120 a day — until they can come up with $250 bail?” Pelletter asked. “If they don’t come up with bail, they’ll have to come back at the next 28-day calender call (all the while, remaining in jail). That’s not protecting the public safety.”

Patrick Swanson, Chautauqua County district attorney, said strengthening lines of communication between defense lawyers and prosecutors, as well as between town judges and services that offer alternatives to incarceration, is key to expediting the system and avoiding unnecessary jail time.

He added, however, that regular bail hearings that can specifically address bail amounts may prove untenable.

“We are limited with the number of people that we have in each of our offices,” Swanson said. “For bail to be reviewed on a regular or even a semi-regular basis requires man hours and requires attorneys to be available to go to the court. There are limitations … and both our office and (the public defender’s office) are stretched about as thin as we can stretch them.”

The council also addressed the growing number of inmates requiring medical care beyond the scope of the jail’s current medical staff.

Christine Schuyler, commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services, said the severity of health conditions in several inmates requires care elsewhere.

“There are absolutely people being sent to jail who should not be there because of medical reasons,” Schuyler said. “We see a great deal of chronic and acute medical conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer, wounds and infections. We need to provide prenatal care to pregnant inmates. Many services also require transportation to various health care facilities.”

Schuyler said it’s “completely inappropriate” to incarcerate many of these people and suggested more alternatives are needed for judges.

Council members also discussed the recent Raise the Age legislation, and determined it’s still unclear what the impact will be locally. Under the law, 16- and 17-year-olds who require detention would no longer be housed in the county jail. Members also agreed to improve links between jail programs and external programs to create a more seamless transition for inmates during reentry.

The Community Justice Council will reconvene Aug. 15 at 2 p.m. at the Gerace Office Building in Mayville.