Sheriffs don't see big savings from bail changes despite state projections

James Neiss/staff photographerAcross the state, sheriffs say state regulations and other factors make it unlikely they will cut staffing at facilities like the Niagara County Jail in Lockport — even if bail legislation keeps the prisoner count low.

ALBANY — While county jail populations have dropped dramatically in recent months, the sheriffs who run the facilities say state regulations and other factors make it unlikely they will cut staffing even if bail legislation keeps the prisoner count low.

"If you have one person in a cell block or 20, you need the same number of officers" to maintain security, said Peter Kehoe, director of the New York State Sheriffs Association, pointing to state staffing mandates imposed on jail administrators.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who pushed through the the new bail statute in last year's state budget, projects that the restrictions designed to keep poor defendants from waiting behind bars for trials will save county governments at least $200 million in short and long-term costs.

"Short term local savings will come from avoiding variable costs such as overtime staffing, food and laundry," the Cuomo administration said in a briefing book accompanying the budget legislation.

It added: "In the longer term, local jails should be able to reduce staffing and potentially close housing units."

Jail population data kept by the state shows that upstate county jails had 21.4 percent fewer inmates Dec. 31 than they had one year earlier.

While the bail law took effect New Year's Day the courts in many counties began abiding by it earlier to avoid a New Year's Eve exodus of inmates and the possibility of litigation from defendants insisting they shouldn't be held because they could not afford bail money.

One of the jails with the biggest population drops in the state is the one administered by Clinton County Sheriff David Favro. He said the jail was housing just 94 inmates Friday, the lowest number sine 2003. A year ago, the jail held 260 inmates.

But Favro said he is braced for the possibility that the inmate count will spring back as those who who been been released from custody return for court dates.

"Any knee jerk response to what we are experiencing now would be somewhat reckless," he said. "These defendants may be out on the streets now but a lot of them are coming back. They are not off the hook. They still have to resolve their cases."

At the statehouse, the push to modify the new bail law is intensifying. Some Democrats who voted for the legislation last year now say they want amendments, though Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie has arguing it is far too soon to undo the reforms. Prosecutors and police executives argue the new law went to far in limiting judges to use their discretion at arraignments.

A poll released by Siena College Jan. 21 found a large majority of independent voters now oppose the law, though that group backed the revisions last April.

JoAnne Page, director of the Fortune Society, a nonprofit group that assists ex-offenders with employment, housing and other needs, contended the bail changes have been working as advocates had hoped.

"Everything we know about the impact of pretrial detention is it makes communities less safe," Page said.

She said the focus by critics of the law on "Willie Horton moments" -- a reference to a Massachusetts convicted murderer who went on a crime spree while free on a state-sanctioned furlough -- fails to take into account the benefits that flow from not jailing people who are presumed innocent after they were arrested for minor offenses.

The debate over the state legislation has become so heated that it's even spilled over to congressional races.

Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-North Country, called the New York law "dangerous" this week as she co-sponsored a measure that would spur the General Accounting Office to conduct an assessment of how individuals at the pre-trial stage of the criminal justice system are monitored at the federal, state and local levels.

Cuomo has signaled he is open to revisions in the law but has yet laid out specifics on how he would revamp bail.

Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach him at jmahoney@cnhi.com

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