More than 45 inmates, some who have already been released and others who will be released by early January, will no longer be held in county jails throughout Northern New York as a result of April legislation that reformed cash bail and pretrial detention rules.
Passed April 1 as part of New York state’s $175 billion 2020 budget, one component of the reform eliminates cash bail for most misdemeanors and certain nonviolent felonies, and after officially taking effect Jan. 1, aims to reduce the number of people detained while awaiting trial because they are unable to make bail. Instead of being held, defendants will be issued court appearance tickets in nearly all cases.
In St. Lawrence, Jefferson, Lewis, Franklin and Oswego counties, most eligible inmates have already been released, as law enforcement officials have started to implement the change over the last several weeks.
In St. Lawrence County, Sheriff Kevin M. Wells said four inmates have been released from county jail, and in Jefferson County, Sheriff Colleen M. O’Neill said nearly a dozen have been released, with two additional cases to be heard before the end of the year. As many as 30 could be released in Franklin County, and the numbers of inmate releases for Lewis and Oswego counties were not available at the time of this report, though Lewis County Corrections officers said its eligible inmates have already been released.
Proposed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and state legislators last year, the reforms have prompted some concern from local law enforcement.
“I’m hoping I’m wrong, I’m hoping that everything works out,” Sheriff Wells said. “But I’ve been doing this for 35 years, and I can see some of the pitfalls we may face ahead.”
In the coming weeks, Sheriff Wells said “we’ll have to see what happens,” citing potential issues of revictimization and continued substance abuse and mental health problems for released inmates and those who will not be held as a result of the reforms.
“We’re worried about the rights of victims,” Sheriff O’Neill said, describing the risk of releasing inmates and not detaining people whose crimes had previously victimized others. “Those have kind of been left behind with these reforms.”
Sheriff O’Neill added that readily available substance abuse and mental health services are typically more convenient for inmates, who are often either required to engage in treatment or are more likely to seek treatment while in jail.
Through several county and community agencies, those services exist outside of correctional facilities, Sheriff O’Neill said, but the likelihood of defendants pursuing those treatment opportunities on their own decreases with the reforms.