GOSHEN, New York — On Jan. 1, or shortly before then, dozens of inmates being held at the Orange County jail on misdemeanor or non-violent felony charges will be freed for the duration of their court cases, no longer obliged to post bail to get out.
Under reforms enacted in April in the state budget and soon to take effect, judges can no longer set bail in most instances for a wide range of offenses. Instead, police will release suspects with appearance tickets for future court dates, and defendants already in jail for those same types of charges will walk free.
Those reforms, cheered by supporters as a long-overdue correction for excessive jailing, have sparked a sharp outcry from law enforcement officials, who argue the changes went overboard and could endanger the public or enable suspects to escape justice. They and other critics are urging state officials and lawmakers to drop, delay or curtail the reform by reducing the offenses for which defendants can no longer be jailed.
One certain impact on the horizon is that county jails will have fewer inmates come Jan. 1.
Orange County Sheriff Carl DuBois estimated Monday that about 100 defendants awaiting trial in the Goshen jail are charged with offenses that no longer qualify for bail and must be released by the end of the year. The rest of the 400 to 450 inmates there at any given time face more serious charges or already have been convicted of crimes and are serving sentences of less than a year.
DuBois is among those who believe bail reform went too far and should be revisited. "Obviously, there is some need for reform with some of your lower-level misdemeanors," he said. What he and other officials find alarming are the more serious charges for which suspects must be let go, including second-degree manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide and aggravated vehicular homicide.
"There's a lot of concern about people's safety, whether they're a witness or a victim of a crime," he said.
DuBois, who was a town justice in Mount Hope before being elected sheriff in 2002, objects that the state has undercut the discretion of the local judges who set bail after arrests. He also warns that judges will lose the threat of jail as leverage to coax defendants with drug addiction into treatment programs.
In addition, defendants will no longer have access to drug treatment programs offered behind bars, including the Vivitrol shots that Orange County offers inmates to relieve an opioid craving. DuBois argues that landing in jail is often what spurs a drug user to confront that program.
"When they hear the doors close behind them, it has a chilling effect," he said.
The budgetary effect for counties remains to be seen. DuBois argued that having fewer inmates won't necessarily lower jail costs, since the state Commission of Correction sets minimum staffing levels based on total beds and security posts, not on actual inmate populations.
And even with fewer inmates, the county must maintain separate housing units for various security classifications, for inmates with medical problems, and for males and females in each of those categories. "The devil's in the details," DuBois said. "It's not just a lump sum."
Another factor is the fluctuating amount of federal immigration detainees and fugitives that the county holds for federal authorities, a large revenue source budgeted to bring in $9.6 million in 2020. County officials projected a $750,000 increase next year by taking in more fugitives from the U.S. Marshals Service, in anticipation of having fewer inmates.
DuBois said his office can make no promises about such income and won't know the actual impact of bail reform on the jail for some time.
"We're going to ease into this and see what the trends are," he said.
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