Ulster County sheriff Juan Figueroa expects the prisoner population of his county law-enforcement center in Kingston to drop to about 125 of its more than 450 beds when all eligible inmates awaiting trial have been released without bail this month. He anticipates the number of prisoners will eventually level off at a number lower than what the local jail has been used to but higher than what it has been after the recent releases. A certain percentage of people aren’t going to come to court, he predicts, ”so we’re going to set up a warrant squad to go get them.”
Other New York counties are in the same boat as Ulster after the new state criminal-justice measures. With reduced occupancy, the under 500-bed county jail is barely above 25 percent occupancy.
The Kingston facility is no longer expected to bring in revenues from boarding prisoners from other jurisdictions, one of the original reasons for building a larger jail. There’s now a far greater supply of jail beds in New York State than demand for them. The Ulster law enforcement center’s two biggest outside customers for boarders have made other arrangements. Dutchess County has spent $34.2 million on its own jail in Poughkeepsie, and Greene County has made a deal to board its prisoners with Albany County. No intergovernmental revenues are expected in Ulster County’s 2020 jail budget.
The diminished number of remaining prisoners at the controversial county law-enforcement center is at present fewer than the number of corrections staff assigned to guard them. According to the 2020 county budget, there are 156 budgeted corrections positions at the jail, plus five other ancillary jobs. Is such a high guard-prisoner ratio sustainable?
The new criminal-justice measures end cash bail for most accused persons and institute a variety of other significant pre-trial changes. There’s now significant opposition to returning completely to the age-old system of wealth-based detention. Federal statistics show a New York State 2016 prison population of 74,400 (published April 2018). Some estimates expect as many as 40,000 New Yorkers to be decarcerated under the new practices.
“The worst nightmare in Ulster County history ended on a good note,” proclaimed then-legislature chair Dave Donaldson back at the opening of the new Kingston jail facility in 2007. The oversized jail, originally scheduled to cost $53 million, had ended up costing $87 million, not counting additional contractors’ claims.
But Donaldson spoke too soon at that time, it now appears. There’s a new nightmare on the horizon.
At over 700 incarcerated persons per 100,000 in population, the United States leads the world in that disturbing statistic. With 4.4 percent of the world’s population, the nation has about 22 percent of the world’s prisoners. According to one study, American state prisons currently hold 1,306,000 prisoners, local jails 612,000, the federal system 221,000, immigration jails 61,000, and youth prisons 46,000. The total number of incarcerated persons comes to about 2.2 million.
In terms of the wrecked lives of both victims and perpetrators, that statistic is nothing to be proud of. What can and should be done about it?
Keeping people in jail is a very expensive proposition. In 2015, the Vera Institute estimated the annual cost of each prisoner in New York State at $69,355. With the new state regulations, fixed costs will be spread over a smaller prison population, and the per-capita cost of incarceration will increase.
Efficient conversion of a jail — and especially Ulster County’s grand law-enforcement center — to another use is impractical. Nor are the skills of correctional officers easily transferable to other occupations.
Granted, the consequences of recidivism of criminal activity can be catastrophic. The new bail regulations “could turn into a nightmare for victims and the families involved,” sheriff Figueroa admitted to reporter Chris McKenna of the Times Herald-Record last week. Sensing a viable political strategy in a universe of more barren options, Republican district attorneys and other law-enforcement officials both local and statewide have been beating the drum for “victims’ rights” and calling the new laws “a criminal bill of rights.” Some Democrats have joined them, increasing the likelihood of future adjustments to the legislation.
Dave Clegg, the probable newly elected Ulster County district attorney, agrees that “public safety is paramount.” Clegg supports most of the changes in state law, though. In an interview at his Kingston office last Friday afternoon, he said that “95 percent of the legislation was good, while five percent needs more work.”
The 2020 Ulster County government executive budget appropriates $53.3 million for law-enforcement functions (about 15.6 percent of the total budget). The county jail is budgeted at $23.1 million. Other entities under the sheriff’s administration will spend $12.5 million. Probation and rehabilitation services will cost $8.2 million. The district attorney’s budget for 2020 is $4.9 million, and the public defender’s office’s has been increased to $3.8 million. Drug investigations are budgeted at $800,000.
Costs of local police forces, the state police, the state prison apparatus, and other police forces such as the DEC’s and the NYC DEP’s, are not included in these figures. Nor are most elements of the extensive court system. Nor are the activities of federal law-enforcement agencies.
The change in function from a mainly punitive system of law enforcement to a rehabilitative and restorative one is no simple proposition. Major societal change is not easy. To aid in the transition, the 2020 Ulster County budget includes seven new state-funded positions in the public defender’s office, a full-time youth director and full-time human rights commissioner, and a new position of diversity officer in the county personnel office.
Dave Clegg hasn’t found a magic formula. How do you give people a second or even third chance and still assure public safety? “It all comes down to discretion,” the longtime local civil litigator concedes. “You use your best judgment.”
For him, discretion is a matter of balancing considerations of equity and safety. Not all judges think alike. Though Clegg believes in judicial discretion in risk assessment, he is open to the understanding that such discretion cannot be absolute.
Some of the new requirements for district attorneys to provide timely information to defense lawyers seem unrealistic to Clegg. There has been an historic imbalance between the information law enforcement has had about suspects and the documentation defense lawyers have been provided. With the new procedures in mind, Clegg suggested an updating in the rules for reasonableness of disclosure. Perhaps extra funding should be available for discovery work, he said.
Will the public be safer if alleged perpetrators of hate crimes, terrorism or domestic violence, plus child molesters and drug dealers, are denied pre-trial protections? How about people accused of second-degree manslaughter? Clegg does not agree with those civil libertarians who argue that including “dangerousness” as a legitimate dimension of risk assessment violates the presumption of innocence.
On the second day that the new measures went into effect, state senate minority leader John Flanagan issued a release that began, “Another day, another individual accused of a heinous crime released back out into the community where they are free to offend again thanks to the radical policies of Democrats in the Senate and Assembly.”
According to reporter Robert Gavin of the Albany Times Union, Paul Barbaritano was being held for manslaughter in the death of 29-year-old Nicole Jennings, whom he allegedly choked and stabbed last July, and left to die in his own Albany apartment. Police said she was strangled with a belt and stabbed in the neck. Police believed Barbaritano tied a “nylon-styled” belt around her neck, tying multiple knots and pulling on it to tighten it before cutting her neck, according to court paperwork.
A revised story by Gavin provided Barbaritano’s lawyer’s version. Her client mortally injured Jennings, she said, following a sexual encounter involving erotic asphyxiation. He accidentally stabbed Jennings while trying to cut a belt from her neck. “He was absolutely trying to save this woman’s life,” said assistant public defender Rebekah Sokol. “He never intended to hurt her.”
The 52-year-old Barbaritano was released from the Albany County jail under the new state bail laws last Thursday. Police are investigating whether the charge should be upgraded to murder.
Look for the lurid headlines to continue.