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Panel mulls bail fund for Greene

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    Greene County Legislator Lori Torgersen, D-Windham, at a regular legislature meeting with Legislators Harry Lennon, D-Cairo, and Larry Gardner, D-Hunter. Torgersen supports a bail fund program.
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    Daniel Zuckerman/Columbia-Greene Media Columbia County Bail Fund board member Susan Tipograph speaks at Time & Space Ltd. in Hudson.
December 4, 2017 11:30 pm

CATSKILL — In the wake of the establishment of the Columbia County Bail Fund, members of the new Greene County Jail project’s Alternatives to Incarceration Subcommittee are considering starting a similar program.

The Columbia County Bail Fund was launched Sunday. Under the program, volunteers will pay bail up to $2,000 for low-income defendants accused of misdemeanors. At the fund’s launch at Time & Space Ltd. in Hudson, fund board member Susan Tipograph said that the program caught the interest of Greene County lawmakers.

There have been telephone calls and a meeting recently about establishing a similar fund in Greene County, said Legislator Lori Torgersen, D-Windham, chair of the ATI Subcommittee. Some of the subcommittee members spoke with criminal defense attorney Daniel Arshack of New York City law firm Arshack, Hajek & Lehrman about the idea, Legislator Lori Torgersen, D-Windham, said.

“Any kind of criminal justice reform work is good work,” Torgersen said. “We are thrilled to see some steps being taken in Greene County.”

Arshack, an expert in bail issues, confirmed his conversation with ATI subcommittee members and said the rules of bail fund organizations established in legislation by the state Senate in 2012 limit organizations to work in only one county.

“We need to establish a separate community bail fund [in Greene County],” Arshack said.

There are bail funds in Madison County and in the New York City boroughs of Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx, Arshack said. Residents in Onondaga County are in the process of creating a bail fund.

“There are bail funds popping up all over the state,” Arshack said. “The purpose is the same everywhere — poor people shouldn’t be penalized for being poor.”

During Arshack’s tenure as a public defender he has seen low-income clients often torn between pleading guilty to a crime to get out of jail or sit in jail for long periods of time and wait to have their day in court, he said.

“They have a terrible choice to make,” Arshack said.

Each year in Greene County, hundreds of defendants are held on bail of less than $2,000 for offenses such as shoplifting and marijuana possession. These defendants may wait a combined total of hundreds of days in jail waiting to have their moment in court, Arshack said. County taxpayers spend as much as $170 daily to fund inmates’ stay in jail. Arshack said a bail fund has the potential to save money.

“We spend $170 a day to protect society from those people — it’s an incredible waste,” Arshack said.

Ninety-eight percent of people who have been bailed out of jail return to court and Arshack said that is the sole purpose of establishing bail for someone.

“All the statistics show that these community bail funds have a high success rate,” Arshack said.

Torgersen said more defendants are held pre-trial today than in the past, when only defendants considered to be a risk to public safety were held pre-trial.

When the ATI subcommittee presented its findings on the jail project in October, bail reform was not specifically presented, but is something the group wants to see move forward, Torgersen said.

“It’s getting underway as we speak,” Torgersen said. “A bail fund is a piece of the concept of bail reform.”

The primary goal of a bail fund is to equalize the playing field for wealthy and indigent defendants, but Torgersen said the fund could help reduce the jail population.

“The fact that they [accused people] can’t meet a small bail isn’t financially feasible,” Torgersen said.

If the project becomes a reality, the ATI subcommittee will look at the Columbia County Bail Fund as a model for how a Greene County equivalent would work.

“I think the folks who took the initiative and said, ‘Hey, what about a fund in Columbia County,’ are looking at other models as well,” Torgersen said.

Greene County Public Defender Angelo Scaturro, a subcommittee member, said if a bail fund were to be established it would most likely be a nonprofit organization that is not run by the county.

“I don’t know if the county can do it,” Scaturro said.

Scaturro said a fund can help people who can’t afford $250 bail stay out of jail. The idea of a bail fund has been discussed and brought up during ATI meetings, he said.

“Most of my clients, they live paycheck to paycheck or on a government stipend,” Scaturro said. “It’s hard enough for them to keep the family afloat.”

To reach reporter Daniel Zuckerman email or follow him on Twitter @DZuckerman_CGM.