ALBANY — Twin County criminal justice reform proponents say Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s plans to reform the state’s justice system are steps in the right direction.
Cuomo proposed numerous reforms to the state’s criminal justice system as part of his 2019-20 Executive Budget, including ending the cash bail system.
“I have worked on the bail issue for a number of years,” said Hudson Fourth Ward Supervisor Linda Mussmann. “The truth is if you are a poor person you will sit in jail and if you are a rich person you get out on bail. It happens here in Columbia County and around the nation.”
Mussmann started a Columbia County bail fund in 2017, with the help of a $10,000 matching grant, that is meant to help people with limited means afford bail, rather than sit in jail until the charges are resolved.
The fund works with the help of about six volunteers who follow clients through the court process, providing communication assistance and support, as well as two bail bondsmen. The fund provides bail support to people who are facing misdemeanor charges, and has provided bail to about 20 people in its time, Mussmann said. The fund has helped people facing charges in courts around the county, including in the towns of Claverack, Taghkanic, Austerlitz and Ghent.
“The fund has been a success,” Mussmann said. “A lot of the people we help have their charges reduced and have been sentenced to probation or community service, but are not going to jail. People have contributed to the fund throughout.”
Former Greene County Legislator Lori Torgersen made a career in criminal justice, previously working for the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, and expressed support for several of the governor’s proposals.
“Pre-trial detention was supposed to be the exception, for people who could be a danger to the community,” Torgersen said. “It has been more heavily utilized over the years. Ending the cash bail system is more equitable and would be a major cost savings to Greene County. It costs more to incarcerate someone than the court gets in bail money.
A shift in public opinion about how the justice system works is driving this change of policy, Mussmann said.
“This is a long road,” Mussmann said. “The governor’s proposals are little steps to making life better for poor people as well as people of color, who are disproportionately affected by the system.”
The governor also proposed creating a shorter time frame for when prosecutors are required to provide evidence to the defense, several reforms to speed up the trial process, reduce the use of solitary confinement and remove barriers for successful re-entry into society after imprisonment.
Columbia County District Attorney Paul Czajka had little to say about the governor’s proposals.
“The [District Attorneys Association of the State of New York] is on top of it,” Czajka said. “They have not released an opinion yet, but I rarely disagree with their positions. Until there are specific proposals, I do not have anything to say.”
Torgersen worked on the issue of re-entry 15 years ago, while serving with the state Division of Criminal Justice Services.
“We were working with statistics at the time that showed two-thirds of people released from prison returned to prison within three years of release,” Torgersen said. “Clearly, the system was not working.”
Cuomo proposed legislation that would remove suspensions and bans on driver’s licenses and occupational licenses; prevent sharing of mugshots that do not have a specific law enforcement need; enhance criminal history reports; expand opportunities for compassionate release, merit release and limited credit time allowances; and reduce financial burdens on those recently released from prison.
“Release is not a point in time, it’s a process,” Torgersen said. “We need to connect people with opportunities to get jobs outside, and not taking people’s licenses, which is often not connected to their crime, makes it difficult for people to get a job.”