Monday, August 18, 2014

Finding a Solution to a Criminal Justice Problem

Dutchess County (NY) Executive Marc Molinaro recently appointed me to be vice chair of an advisory committee to review plans for the development of the new Dutchess County Justice Transition Center in Poughkeepsie. The chair is former State Senator Steve Saland.

The DCJTC consists of the County Jail and other facilities and programs that provide alternatives to incarceration and help with the transition back into the community. 

Our group met on the evening of August 12 to get to know one another and learn what is expected of us. We were also presented with information about our role. We were unanimous about having our monthly meetings in the evening and open to the public. They will be held in the County Legislature Chambers on the sixth floor of the County Office Building at 22 Market Street, across from the Bardavon. A meeting schedule is being developed and will be publicized. The County will develop a Web site to keep the public informed and I will post information on this blog. All of us seek feedback from residents of Dutchess County, particularly the City of Poughkeepsie. Feel free to post a note here or at the end of other DCJTC blog posts.

There are several issues that need to be addressed. With an inmate population of 292, the current County Jail is full. The County spends more than $8 million a year to house additional inmates in other counties’ jails. Pods capable of housing an additional 200 inmates will soon be installed at the jail complex in the City of Poughkeepsie. Yet, that is still not enough to meet the need for the number of people currently incarcerated for anywhere from a few days up to just under a year.

This out-of-county housing of inmates, as much as four hours away, has additional costs, including transportation, staffing, scheduling issues with the courts and attempts at rehabilitation, and difficulties for family visits.

The current configuration of the County Jail is severely inefficient, cobbling together several buildings, including one with a zigzag design that caused the County to hire an inordinate number of corrections officers (COs). In Dutchess County, $27.5 million of the $40 million jail budget is spent on personnel. There are 223 COs, which equates to a ratio of 1.2 inmates for each CO. Warren County in Upstate New York, has a ratio of 3.4 to 1. At a typical cost of $110,000 per CO for salary and benefits, those expenses add up quickly and are borne by County taxpayers.

Our committee will review siting and design to provide adequate inmate capacity and address special populations, balancing the needs for incarceration and rehabilitation. This must be accomplished while ensuring public safety and enhancing the surrounding neighborhood. That last point is of particular interest to me, because I grew up and lived around the corner from the jail. The property under consideration includes the original site on North Hamilton Street and additional land along Parker Avenue near the Walkway Over The Hudson. This property is important to the city and we should think outside the box to incorporate open space and retail along the streets that serve as the gateway to the Walkway, which annually attracts 750,000 people from all over the world.

Another advisory group is looking at “special populations” housed at the current jail and how both physical space and programs, particularly alternatives to incarceration, can address them. A third committee was appointed by the County Legislature and will serve in an advisory role to them. This is why the new facility will be called the Dutchess County Justice Transition Center, because it will be more than a traditional “jail” in both construction and program.

I appreciate Marc's confidence in our panel and his desire to have wide-ranging input on such an important issue. We have a lot of work ahead of us over the next several months. Together, we can and will change the criminal justice system in Dutchess County and make it a model for New York and the nation.