As more New Yorkers wait for trial at home, few communities are paying for services to support them
Standing in the sunshine outside a Suffolk County courthouse, Derek tried to explain the fight with addiction that keeps getting him arrested.
“It’s a crazy thing,” said Derek, who asked us not to use his last name because he fears it could jeopardize his upcoming court case. “It just makes you do things that you normally wouldn’t do when you’re a sober person.”
Derek, now in his 40s, was first arrested for drug possession when he was 15. He’s spent the last 25 years in and out of jail.
Usually when he’s been arrested, Derek has waited for trial in jail.
But his most recent arrest was different. Under the changes to the state bail laws enacted in 2020, he got to wait for trial at home. During the waiting period, he got access to a slate of publicly-funded programs known as pretrial services. For Derek, that meant drug counseling. Already, he said he can tell that support will make it easier for him to stay out of trouble after his case is over.
“I have a lot more resources than I did before,” he said. “If I have any issues with anything, I can go to these counselors.”
But the support Derek got is rare. Under the new bail reform laws, counties are required at a minimum to keep track of people who have been released before trial — either using electronic devices or probation staff. If counties want to spend the money, they can also offer other services like mentoring, drug counseling, and job placement — services advocates say reduce crime.
In an analysis of the 10 most-populous jurisdictions in New York, most departments in charge of pretrial services aren't increasing funding, even though thousands more people are now awaiting trial from home. Only two jurisdictions — New York City and Westchester County — significantly increased the budgets for the departments in charge of pretrial services. The eight remaining counties increased budgets by an average of 3% since 2019, less than the rate of inflation.
Several counties reduced the budgets for the departments in charge of pretrial services, including Onondaga, Suffolk and Erie.
Officials in both Suffolk and Erie said they cut other parts of their budgets to meet the demands of bail reform.
“You kind of shift your funding in the department based on need,” said Michelle Olszowy, Erie County’s commissioner of probation. “But it was quite evident when this bail reform came out that that need skyrocketed.”
Some lawmakers in other parts of the state decided to make support services for people awaiting trial a spending priority. Starting in 2017, New York City started investing millions in a constellation of programs that hope to reduce crime by assisting defendants find housing, jobs and mental health counseling. In 2022, New York City is set to spend about $155 million on programs for people awaiting trial.
This year, Westchester increased funding to its probation department by 27%.
“Our county has been very understanding and they've prioritized this program, because they understand the implications for defendants,” said Sheralyn Pulver, Westchester’s chief administrator for probation.”
Many departments are looking to the state to provide funding for pretrial services, officials said. But state funding for pretrial services has been limited — a total of about $4 million dollars a year for the 10 most populous jurisdictions. In this year’s budget, which is due April 1, Governor Kathy Hochul is promising to increase that to $10 million per year.
Still, some county officials said that won’t be enough to pay for the support people need.
“For a state with over 60 counties, that just does not sound like a lot of money to me,” Pulver said. “They've placed a mandate on counties to provide funding for those services. So one would expect that they would be willing to provide funding to help.”
Joseph DiCarlo, the director of probation in Rockland, agreed, saying he can only build “the skeleton of a program” with the funding they have so far.
“Hopefully we'll get some assistance, some guidance from the state as we move forward,” DiCarlo said.
Advocates, however, said funding for pretrial services is a shared responsibility. They are pushing counties to not rely on the state to fund pretrial services. They want local governments to follow Westchester’s and New York City’s lead by investing in pretrial services out of their own budgets as a public safety tool.
“These are choices that these counties are making. And they're choosing to not prioritize pretrial services and to prioritize other budgetary lines,” said Jullian Harris-Calvin of the Vera Institute of Justice.
Jail funding remains flush
While communities are struggling to fund support for people awaiting trial, they seem to be finding as much money as ever to pay for local jails. Despite the fact that there are 23% fewer people in jails statewide compared to before bail reform, funding for them hasn’t changed. The only big exception is New York City, which reduced its correction budget by 15% since bail reform.
Several counties — Nassau, Suffolk, Westchester, Orange and Rockland — increased funding for jails even as the number of people incarcerated declined.
Orange County, for example, increased jail funding by $6.3 million since bail laws changed even though it imprisons a third of the number of people it used to.
Kenneth T. Jones, the undersheriff in Orange, blames Democrats in Albany for selling bail reform as something that would save communities money.
“They promised different funding for different things that the counties would be able to do within their own budget, because all this money would be freed up,” he said. “And they were lying.”
Jones and other sheriffs said because state regulations set minimum staffing requirements, jails can’t cut costs by reducing staff.
However, according to public comments regarding changes to these regulations, it was actually sheriffs who opposed changes to the regulations that considered giving local jails more flexibility in staffing.
“As most other county officials have little or no experience in the operation or staffing of a jail … county officials may prove dangerous if frugality prevailed over interests of safety and security,” the New York State Sheriff Association read into the record at a meeting of the State Commission on Correction.
The sheriffs association did not respond to numerous requests for an interview.
The state commission did modify some regulations, but it continues to set minimum staffing requirements based on a jail’s maximum capacity.
“This rule changes little in terms of fixing New York State’s jail overstaffing problem by giving local jurisdictions greater flexibility,” Harris-Calvin of the Vera Institute of Justice said.
Back outside district court in Suffolk, Derek said the drug counseling he’s receiving through pretrial services is, so far, helping him.
“Because it gives people like myself the opportunity to actually do right,” he said. “Instead of sitting behind bars and, and not trying to do anything for themselves.”
Another service he thinks counties should offer soon is job placement. A lot of people who are arrested, he said, are shunned when looking for work.