CATSKILL — Two counties could be served by a regional jail as the state enters a new era of downsizing its criminal population, a Brooklyn assemblyman said Wednesday.
Assemblyman Joseph Lentol, D-50, who chairs the Codes Committee, said he is willing to sponsor a bill to make shared jails a reality.
“I think it’s something that’s necessary,” he said. “We don’t need to be building jails necessarily in every county. We could have a regional jail to serve two counties.”
The criminal justice reforms make the timing for this legislation ideal, he said.
“We’re entering a new era where we want to reduce prison size and stop the prison brigade in our state. I hope this will start a trend to downsize our criminal population.”
Greene County residents will also not have the tax burden of a new facility, Lentol said.
“It’s a win all the way around,” he said.
The Codes Committee meets weekly, Lentol said, adding that the bill would be introduced either this week or next week.
Jail critics gathered their forces Tuesday night and reviewed strategies to get county lawmakers to pause and rethink the proposed jail.
The Greene County Legislature, at its full board meeting May 15, agreed to request a definitive answer from state officials about whether County Law 217 had state support to be amended. The key words of the law, “each county shall continue to maintain a county jail as prescribed by law,” does not indicate whether a jail can be operated outside of a county’s borders or if multiple counties can share a jail.
The estimated $66 million project is about a week away from receiving its final permits and construction will begin if the board does not receive a clear answer from the state, Greene County Administrator Shaun Groden said.
If the proposed amendment to County Law 217 receives state support, county lawmakers must decide whether to rescind the $39 million U.S. Department of Agriculture bond and the construction bids, which requires a super-majority vote.
Foes of the jail project must keep the heat on, locally and in Albany, Phoebe Potter of West Kill said.
“We’re not just getting rid of a jail,” Potter said. “We have to think about what do we do next.”
Potter said she was disappointed with the letter Groden sent to Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
“It asked him [Cuomo] to sign legislation authorizing us to board out permanently,” Potter said. Groden’s letter does not request an amendment to the law allowing shared or regional jails.
“Please accept this correspondence as a request for your support in amending County Law 217 and other required laws to allow Greene County to permanently board out detainees/inmates to neighboring county jails,” Groden wrote in a letter dated May 16.
The state Commission on Corrections does not see boarding out permanently as a feasible option, Potter said, adding that she thought Groden used the wording intentionally.
“The Legislature is hiding behind COC’s guidance,” Potter said.
Past correspondence from Commission of Corrections Chairman Allen Riley to Legislator Michael Bulich, R-Catskill, indicates that a shared facility was always an option if the law was amended.
“The Commission has emphasized that whether to construct a new facility or whether to seek legislative authority to share services with another county was a local decision to be made by Greene County,” Riley wrote in a letter dated March 6.
Katie Schaffer of JustLeadershipUSA, a group dedicated to cutting the nation’s incarcerated population in half by 2030, agreed.
“[The interpretation] states that there does not need to be a brick-and-mortar jail in the county,” she said.
In addition to seeking the amendment of the law, the public can also request a renewed interpretation of the statue, Schaffer said.
Meetings have been held with state Sens. Jamaal Bailey, D-36; Luis Sepulveda, D-32; and Jen Metzger, D-42, and Assemblymen Lentol and David Weprin, D-24, Schaffer said.
Weprin declined to comment on the matter.
Sepulveda’s Senior Adviser Dianna Goodwin confirmed that the senator would sponsor or co-sponsor a bill, although some details need to be ironed out, she said. Sepulveda chairs the Corrections Committee.
“This is coming up in other counties also,” Schaffer said. “We want them to recognize it as a statewide problem and as an opportunity created by the criminal justice reforms.”
Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a series of bills into law with the 2020 state budget April 1, which will take effect in January. Included in the budget is a law eliminating bail for misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies. Police must issue appearance tickets to individuals charged with misdemeanors and class E felonies rather than make custodial arrests. The reforms are expected to keep about 90% of people out of jail prior to their court date. On average, two-thirds of the incarcerated population are being detained waiting for their day in court, according to governor.ny.gov.
Schaffer does not believe it is too late to get bills on the floor, she said.
“This legislative session ends June 19,” Schaffer said. “Everyone works better under pressure. And the vast majority of bills are introduced in the final session.”
Schaffer said she feels state lawmakers were interested in introducing the legislation, she said.
“In the next day or two we will get commitment on who will introduce the bills and in what committee,” she said. “Once we have bill numbers, you can start calling [state] legislators.”
Former Greene County Public Defender Greg Lubow also expressed a lack of faith in the county’s letter, which required a response by May 28.
“The letter said, ‘If you support this legislation, we will avoid breaking ground,’” Lubow said. “That is a commitment that I’m not sure Mr. Groden can live up to. I didn’t see a unanimous clamoring [in the legislature] to pause the jail.”
“We are seeking your express support for this Legislative amendment(s) in order to avoid ground breaking and issuance of final bonds,” Groden wrote. “As Greene County is about to break ground, your express support for such amendment(s), writing, is required no later than May 28, as contracts are being signed as this letter is being drafted.”
Lubow said there is a movement spreading through other counties for regional facilities.
“We are working with a compressed — an extraordinarily compressed — timeline,” Lubow said. “Amending 217 is a long-term goal. Our short-term goal is to pause the jail.”
Lubow said he thinks it is up to the public to make it happen.
“We can’t rely on good faith to pause the jail,” Lubow said. “If we could, they would have paused it already.”
The needs of the county have drastically changed, even prior to the reforms, Lubow said.
“The Ricci-Greene study (conducted in 2015 to analyze jail requirements) predicted that in 2020 we would have 73 inmates,” he said. “Today, without the reforms, we have 29.”
Lubow said the size of the proposed jail is inappropriate.
“We have 56 cells right there,” he said, gesturing to the former jail on 80 Bridge St. “Forty-eight is less than 56, even in Greene County.”
Sharing a jail with Columbia County is not a feasible option, Lubow said.
“Columbia County jail is crumbling,” Lubow said. “The last thing we’re going to do is invest tens of millions of dollars in Columbia County.”
Cassidy Bua, a campaign coordinator for the opposition movement closed by inviting residents to sign up for the property owners and small business coalitions, participate in group photo events with the campaign T-shirts and help plan a question-and-answer session with county lawmakers.
“The longer we can pause this, the more the world is going to change,” Windham businessman Nick Bove said.
The group is sending its own letter to the governor, with more than 160 signatures from 11 Greene County towns: 87 signatures from Catskill, 21 from Athens, 18 from Windham, eight from Hunter, seven from Cairo, six from Coxsackie, four from Greenville, three from Jewett and two each from the towns of New Baltimore, Durham and Lexington. Three residents did not include their town names and one signature was from Albany County.
Lawmakers will reconvene on the issue May 29.