County looks to save money by offering inmates help

HUDSON–Columbia County officials have proposed a new position of public services coordinator for detained people and their families. The coordinator would work to assure that people detained get the services and programs for which they are eligible from the time of arrest through release.

Michelle Ublacker, deputy commissioner of social services, and Captain Thomas Lanphear of the county Sheriff’s Office presented the proposal to the County Board of Supervisors Human Services Committee meeting Wednesday, March 16 and to the Public Safety Committee the following day.

Social Services, the Sheriff’s Office, Children of Incarcerated Parents, Re-Entry, Twin Counties, Veterans’ Services, and Mental Health would continue their current programs, Captain Lanphear said. But the Public Services Coordinator would make sure that each client has access to all pertinent programs. “We’re looking for someone to pull all agencies together,” keeping track of each client’s needs and who works to fulfill these needs, said , and how. “This is not for someone to sit and wait for people to come,” Capt. Lanphear said.

Asked whether the coordinator would only be available Monday through Friday, Capt. Lanphear acknowledged, “We would still have some people who fall through the cracks,” but he added, “we have more who do so now.”

Ms. Ublacker expressed the hope that a public services coordinator this would reduce both recidivism and the number of released inmates who end up homeless, which could lower costs paid by the county.

The proposal calls for the coordinator to be a civil service position filled by a senior case worker. Proponents of the new position offered examples of the roles the coordinator could play:

• At arrest, making sure that an individual’s household is provided for and the detained person’s employer is notified

• In a recent drug arrest, the suspect had several dogs that were left in a trailer for three days until someone discovered them and called in the Humane Society. A services coordinator could have learned about the pets earlier

• Capt. Lanphear said that when a suspect asks, “Can I call my boss?” he must ask whether the suspect has already made the single call permitted. Often the suspect has used that call to contact a family member, so the suspect’s boss might learn why the individual has stopped coming to work. A Public Services Coordinator could notify the boss immediately

• During incarceration the coordinator can arrange family visits (including from children) and seek ways inmates can continue their education and resume employment.

Supervisor Reverend Edward Cross (D-Hudson, 2nd Ward) emphasized the importance for the children. “All of a sudden, their parents are gone. And the kids think it was because of something they did,” he said

• Upon release, the coordinator can help the individual obtain housing, food and an income, usually through re-entry programs. Capt. Lanphear proposed a daily program in things like job skills. “A re-entry block. Not just one evening a week.”

Captain Lanphear and Ms. Ublacker said that Columbia is one of the only counties in the state that does not have a public services coordinator or the equivalent. Rensselaer County has 35 such positions, although they have additional duties, such as running the prison commissary.

Both local officials called the proposed new position “Inmate Services Coordinator” at the March 16 meeting. But by the March 17 meeting, the name had changed to “Public Services Coordinator,” partly to show it would address the needs not only of inmates but also of inmates’ families.

The supervisors discussed what agencies could fund the new position.

Supervisor William Hughes (D-Hudson, 4th Ward) said, “I love this idea. It will save the county money if the released inmates aren’t homeless.”

The next Human Services Committee meeting will be Wednesday, April 20. The next Public Safety Committee meeting will be Thursday, April 21. Both will take place at 5 p.m. at 401 State Street.

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