Jail expansion chance to re-evaluate justice

Republicans in the Dutchess County Legislature are fighting for a $184 million expansion to the county jail. Currently, an average of nearly 200 inmates are housed in other counties on a given day, a practice that is inefficient and costly for taxpayers. The proposed new facility, however, would vastly over-compensate, providing 200 more beds than current demand would require. Furthermore, this investment would come at the expense of programs that help address crime in the community and generally treat social problems at the source, rather than accommodating the symptom, as this proposal would do. Seth Warner, ’14, is running this fall for a seat in the Dutchess County Legislature. He claims that this massive investment in a new jail is a moral and fiscal nightmare. The construction of jails will only facilitate the growth of incarcerated individuals. Warner contends that an emphasis on jails today over alternatives will make us more and more dependent on incarceration in the future and will push the justice system’s focus towards punitive measures to an even greater degree, instead of in the direction of reform programs.

Moreover, the inmates being sent to other counties are usually the most benign, non-violent offenders, since other counties wouldn’t accept them otherwise. These individuals are typically those for whom alternatives to incarceration programs are meant, but the county does not currently have a system in place that adequately identifies those individuals early in the process. Furthermore, it is important to note that in any case, county jails only house individuals who are awaiting trial or who have been sentenced for misdemeanors.

Seth Warner predicts that with the construction of this jail and the subsequent emphasis on locking people up we will witness a 50% rise in incarceration. If all that money is spent on a jail, how likely is one to divert the negligible remaining funds towards programs to ensure we minimally use the newly-built $184 million facility? Plus, interest rates to pay off this costly and harmful expenditure could be up to $12 million a year, which is more than the county pays right now to house inmates elsewhere. For a county with a money problem and already-high (and rising) taxes, how can Republican legislators justify such a fiscally irresponsible and regressive proposition?

According to a summary report of the “Issues and Concerns on Proposed Dutchess County Jail Construction” written by the Dutchess Democratic Women’s Caucus (DDWC), “the proposed jail would be the largest capital project ever undertaken by the county.” The DDWC supports “improvements in the overall efficiency of the criminal justice system in the county” including the increased use of Alternatives to Incarceration (ATI) programs to reduce the need for jail beds.

The Validation Study of the Dutchess County Criminal Justice System Needs Assessment, conducted by architecture and planning firm Ricci Greene Associates, describes a desire for a “campus-style” facility, replete with many social services, which, in addition to being a creepy concept, is a problematic one. Such a label suggests that legislators see no problem with long sentences for misdemeanors or lengthy waits for trial. Although the study is less critical to the idea of a new facility, even it challenges the legislature’s “population forecasts,” projections of the future demand for jail beds, considering in particular the overall aging population of the county.

Both Greene and the DWCC claim that the average length of stay could be significantly reduced by improving the efficiency of the local justice system, especially by speeding up arraignments and more often using the types of assessments that separate-out those who qualify for alternative treatment. In general, the county should focus on reducing the average daily population (ADP), not accommodating it as if it were wholly inevitable.

Furthermore, the DWCC cites that “the operation costs of a new jail are not quantified” and “overall it is unclear funds will be available for additional programs.” $184 million is just the figure that will supposedly cover the cost of construction. We don’t know the precise cost of maintaining the facility in the future.

Seth Warner and the DWCC have the right idea in their support for funding programs in the community which focus on mental health, substance abuse, education, crime prevention and treatment for former inmates such as those to aid in re-integration, employment and generally to reduce the rate of recidivism.

Other potential alternative investments include the establishment of a centralized arraignment court and the creation of 24-hour mental health crisis centers. The county should increase the use of interim probation sentences where appropriate and Accelerated Release and Re-Entry Programs. A substance abuse relapse crisis center already exists but is much too small.

Another simple fix would be to provide aid for bail, minimizing unnecessary disruption to the community. 20% of all Dutchess County Jail inmates are people who simply could not afford to pay bail less than $2000 and are left to sit in jail, often for minor offenses. Women, who in the context of incarceration apparently have “specialized needs” and who make up a sixth of inmates in the county jail, would be better served by community or halfway housing. The studies I’ve cited also recommend the construction of a separate 12-bed facility for women that would allow the county jail to be all male, saving space and providing more appropriate housing for female inmates.

It is important to maintain a balance between retribution, reform and recovery in justice and if the focus becomes punitive and shortsighted, rather than pragmatic and long-term, we risk moving backwards, destroying lives and shattering communities.

 

—Aidan Kahn ’14 is a political science major.

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