HUDSON–Bail reform, transportation, a shrinking jail population, and ReEntry Columbia’s need for new staff highlighted that organization’s Task Force meeting November 13. ReEntry Columbia, under contract with the county Board of Supervisors through the Department of Social Services, helps people who have been impacted by the criminal justice system—including those transitioning from incarceration to freedom and those awaiting trial.
Bail reform in the state will expand the number of crimes that do not require jailing a suspect and charging cash bail before the suspect is tried. The immediate effect on Columbia County is that as of January 2, when bail reform takes effect, 40% to 50% of the people in the County Jail will be released, said Ian Crimmins, an assistant public defender for the county.
Mr. Crimmins spoke about bail reform favorably. Keeping a person out of jail until found guilty “reinforces the idea of presumed innocence. Unfortunately, in the last 30 years, courts consider you guilty on arraignment.” In addition, clients out of jail are better able to participate in preparing their defense.
“Some people say that bail reform is an unfunded mandate. But so is jail,” said Mr. Crimmins. Economically, the county must decide how to reallocate money from jail to “pre-trial services,” such as mental health counseling. The county Department of Probation assesses people awaiting trial, both in and out of jail, to determine what services they might be eligible for, explained its Director, Vincent Doto.
What about the danger of a client absconding? Mr. Crimmins said that though it is not possible to “do GPS tracking for everybody” in Columbia County, the defendant knows that if he does not show up for the trial, “they’ll have his trial without him.”
“What if they’re dealing drugs?” asked Beth Schuster, executive director of Twin County Recovery Services
Mr. Crimmins replied that:
• Serious drug dealing is exempt from bail reform
• Whether that person is really dealing drugs is up for the jury to determine. The person is legally innocent unless and until found guilty
• When we lock up a drug dealer, there will be 10 other people who will continue his business.
Ms. Schuster persisted, “Some people have said, ‘If I didn’t go to jail, I’d be dead’ of an overdose,” she said.
“I saw on TV that in Saratoga County there’s a backlash against bail reform because it requires more boots on the street,” said someone else at the meeting.
And fewer boots in the jail, Mr. Crimmins replied. “Some people don’t show up in court because they don’t have transportation,” he said. In these cases, “sometimes I tell the judge ‘Let’s adjourn.’”
“Transportation will be a big issue,” said Laurie Scott, executive director of ReEntry Columbia. Some people awaiting trial have had their drivers licenses suspended, a member of the audience said.
“We have a bus, but it doesn’t run on evenings,” added Mr. Crimmins. And although family court operates mostly in the day, “local court” operates mostly at night, said Ms. Scott.
“Do you plan to give them transportation?” asked a care coordinator.
Mr. Crimmins answered, “I guess not. Our task is to defend clients in courts.”
Meeting attendees discussed the possibility of running a van to courts. One complication is that on some nights of the week, more than one different town has its court open.
The County Jail population has been shrinking even without bail reform, which will cut it lower. Mr. Crimmins had suggestions for adjusting to this change: “You can repurpose jail guards to search on the streets for people who don’t show up in court. Some people have suggested repurposing part of the jail for a homeless shelter.”
When Ms. Scott said that the jail’s recovery dorm, for inmates overcoming substance abuse, was “very tiny,” Mr. Crimmins said, “I hope it shrinks down to one person. The other beds can be used for rehab.”
Despite bail reform, when Ms. Scott asked, “If I got arrested what would happen?”
Mr. Doto replied, “That depends on the court.”
“That’s scary,” said Ms. Scott.
On another matter, Ms. Scott, announced her resignation after three and a half years as executive director, effective December 31. “I think that ReEntry has done as much as it can do right now, and we need to move forward,” she said. “ReEntry could have a different look.”
ReEntry has already undergone organizational changes this year. Carolyn Polikarpus, its long-time program director/ case manager, retired this summer. Her successor, Andrea Chrisjohn, quit after a very short time, said Ms. Scott.
Also at the meeting:
• Ms. Scott reported, “We’re not getting too many volunteers at the jail”
• Ms. Schuster reported meeting with County Sheriff David Bartlett and that he “feels really strongly that there should be someone full time a jail counselor to work with people with substance abuse issues.
The next meeting of the ReEntry Columbia Task Force will take place Wednesday, January 8, 2020, at 325 Columbia Street in Hudson at 10 a.m.