In 2016, Dutchess County had an unprecedented opportunity to change what a county jail is and how a criminal justice system addresses its inmates. The county legislature chose the most expensive and least effective way to seize that opportunity.
On March 21 2016, the Dutchess County Legislature voted to approve a $192 million bond to build a new sheriff’s office and upgrade the county jail to 569 beds: the most expensive jail related project in New York State in recent history. The plan, named the Justice and Transition Center, was unveiled on February 4 2016 and was rushed to a vote after five town hall meetings.
To those concerned that the plan did not include funding for the services and programs needed to reduce incarceration, county officials asserted that we would receive grants for these services as the county would be acclaimed as a “model for the nation” in criminal justice reform. Instead we are the poster child of fiscal irresponsibility and social injustice.
In 2015, Dutchess had a significantly higher rate of incarceration than the state average. 70% of the inmates in January 2016 were unable to make bail and were awaiting sentencing – significantly worse than the state average. Over 70% of the inmates had mental health or drug abuse issues that would be more humanely served in a therapeutic setting.
Despite one of the largest outpourings of citizen speakers protesting the jail bond at the March county legislature meeting– going on close to midnight – the bond was approved. All but one Democratic legislator voted against it; their opposition has proven prescient.
Unfortunately we have already spent about $34 million of the bond on a new upscale sheriff’s office with a state-of-the-art fitness facility, one of the most expensive sheriff office renovations in the state. What county-wide problem did we solve by building a mega-sized sheriff’s office?
Fortunately, approximately $155 million allocated to the jail has not yet been spent. We need to immediately redirect these remaining funds to a more just use.
Since the vote to approve the bond, our environment is far different than it was in 2016. The New York State Bail Reform law significantly decreased the number of inmates awaiting sentencing. In May 2020 the average inmate population was 146, far lower than the projected 569 in the bond. And this number can be further reduced in two ways: by diverting those with mental health or addiction issues and by decreasing the time from arrest to arraignment.
The County Comptroller audited various criminal justice programs and found that many alternatives to incarceration were more cost effective than housing non-violent offenders in jail. Individual offenders with substance abuse addiction or mental illness are better served in the community with appropriate restrictions, without any increase in recidivism.
Dutchess County has a larger percentage of inmates awaiting arraignment, trial, or sentencing. In 2016, 70% of inmates in the Dutchess County jail were unsentenced; in May 2020 the percentage was approximately the same. Dutchess County has made no improvement in this potential violation of the constitutional right to a speedy trial. The average percentage for other county jails in New York is 55%. If Dutchess only met the state average our current jail population would be less than 120.
The jail plan has been downsized by the county from its original design of 569 beds to 328 beds and the time line for completion of the new jail has been delayed four years from April 2020 to April 2024. According to a May 2020 comptroller report, the estimated cost is approximately the same at $147 million and the timeline for construction is estimated to start in December 2020. Even this revised plan is totally unrealistic. County officials cannot lay the blame for this ill-conceived plan on the State Commission of Corrections (SCOC) as they attempted to do in 2016.
As the looming financial crisis of COVID-19 hangs over us, it is irresponsible to saddle taxpayers with this unnecessary burden for years to come. In addition to being financially irresponsible, it would be incredibly tone deaf and offensive to continue with this project in light of the serious need for racial justice and criminal justice reform. We can no longer turn a blind eye to the fact that our justice system disproportionately and severely impacts black and brown people. While Blacks represented approximately 11% of the Dutchess County population in 2016, they were 39% of the jail population. Hundreds of thousands of people across the country, from a wide array of demographics, are in the streets saying ENOUGH!
The DDWC has a long history of working on jail reform. Since our founding in 2005, we have proposed many changes to criminal justice system in Dutchess County. We organized the protests at the town hall meetings and at the March 21 meeting of the county legislature. Our opposition to the 2016 plan has been vindicated. We call on the county legislature to immediately rescind the bond authorization until the county develops a plan that more equitably supports the needs of all the county residents. The plan should be developed in concert with the relevant community agencies and organizations that are working on alternatives to incarceration. We are willing to be part of that process.
We have the chance to do better and we must take this opportunity to act.