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Cuomo looking to lower jail costs

OBSERVER Staff and Wire Report

ALBANY — As jail populations continue to plummet in the state, New York’s governor is proposing to allow counties to opt into regional lockups instead of solely operating their own facility.

The legislation from Gov. Andrew Cuomo is one in a long list of policy proposals included within his state budget proposal, on which lawmakers continue to hold hearings this week.

The governor’s office says the legislation will allow counties to lower costs by not maintaining their own separate facility.

Recently released data from the state shows that New York’s total jail population plunged by 30% from January 2019 to last month. Most of that decline has come in the past few months, something reform advocates say is tied to the rollout of a state law that eliminates cash bail for the wide majority of misdemeanors and nonviolent crimes.

Savings from jail operations, they said, can be used for other things like mental health services and drug treatment. The bail law, which went into effect at the beginning of the year, spurred a fierce political debate that pitted criminal justice advocates against prosecutors and law enforcement officials.

Among county jails outside New York City, the state has seen a 25% drop in inmate population since 2010, according to data from the state’s Division of Criminal Justice Services.

That has left some rural county jails with only a few dozen inmates to look after. In Orleans County, there were an estimated 41 inmates in the facility last month, according to state data.

In Chautauqua County, Sheriff James Quattrone said the jail as of Tuesday was housing 161 inmates – 48 of whom are federal inmates. He said the overall jail population is down 34% from the same time a year ago.

“This is not necessarily all as a result of bail reform but also the implementation of centralized arraignment,” Quattrone said.

Centralized arraignment began as part of a statewide pilot program in January 2019. Outside of Dunkirk and Jamestown, those charged with a crime are taken to Chautauqua County Jail in Mayville, where arraignments are held twice a day in front of a judge. The program ensures counsel is available to those facing charges.

Regarding the proposed regionalization of jails, Quattrone said the the county would still be responsible for paying the costs of housing inmates, wherever they may be located. He also noted the costs of transporting inmates to and from court, in addition to the travel family and lawyers would have to face.

“I, along with sheriffs across the state, am opposed to the regionalization of jails,” Quattrone said. “While this may seem to be a benign measure, aimed at consolidating services (and reducing expenses) of participating municipalities, this is simply not the case. There are significant legal and logistical hurdles that would need to be overcome before any such agreement could be ratified.”

“This proposal does not serve justice, nor will it make local governments more cost-efficient,” the sheriff added.

Meanwhile, New York’s yearly figures have outpaced tepid declines in jail populations at the national level. The statewide inmate population has been on the decline for years now, but reform advocates say the changes to bail reform have accelerated that trend.

State lawmakers overhauled bail rules to tackle what they saw as the old system’s unfair bias against poor defendants. Poor people charged with minor offenses would languish in jail for not being able to afford bail, reform supporters argued.

Law enforcement and prosecutors argue the changes jeopardized public safety, saying defendants released under the new law will be free to commit new crimes.

There was a statewide average of 14,983 inmates held in jail facilities in January, compared with 21,406 people during the same time a year before, according to state data. The data did not specify how many inmates are specifically held in pretrial detention.

Eric Tichy contributed to this story.

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