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Ulster Legislature Approves Restorative Justice Center Funding

Ulster County is set to construct a restorative justice center. On Thursday, county legislators unanimously approved the funding requested, but not before discussion about the cost. The center is part of the county’s response to New York’s Raise the Age law, which takes effect October 1.

The funding authorization came during a special session of the Ulster County Legislature. The more than $3 million will go toward renovating the county probation building in Kingston to accommodate the Ulster County Restorative Justice and Community Empowerment Center. Democratic Ulster County Executive Mike Hein.

“It will undoubtedly become a model around the entire state of New York for how to do this, do it compassionately, and do it right,” Hein says.

Plus, he says.

“I am positive that right now there’s a 15-year-old kid, who’s about to turn 16 years, and going to make a mistake. And they’re going to run face first into the criminal justice system,” Hein says. “I want to make sure that it’s a kinder, gentler system that simply works to make sure that they don’t enter what has been known as the school-to-prison pipeline, they can actually take a different path, receive the supports and ultimately be in a place where their life is productive and successful.”

Governor Andrew Cuomo signed legislation in April 2017 raising the age of criminal responsibility to 18, ensuring that young people in New York who commit non-violent crimes receive intervention and evidence-based treatment. New York was previously one of two states in the nation that automatically processed all 16- and 17-year-olds as adults, no matter their offense. The legislation becomes effective October 1, starting with 16-year-olds. Republican County Legislator Brian Woltman represents the City of Kingston.

“It’s near a gateway entrance to the city of Kingston so it’s going to send out a message to people who are visiting our city that we really care about our children,” Woltman says. “But, more importantly, as I see it, it’s also located in the neighborhood, near a neighborhood, that has the largest concentration of children in the City of Kingston. And what a beacon of hope it will be for them. So I’m delighted to support this and I’m very grateful. Thank you.”

Republican County Legislator Richard Gerentine, who chairs the Ways and Means Committee, says he did not think any legislator opposed the program. Of concern, rather, was how the cost went from $1.6 million to $3.2 million and when the legislature was informed. Gerentine says the presentation from Hein’s administration should have come sooner, right after officials secured the bids. Ulster County Director of Purchasing Marc Rider responded.

“We went out to bid in April. We got our bids back May 3, so we came to you as quickly as we could, I think the next week,” Rider said.

Also prior to the vote, county Legislature Democratic Minority Leader Hector Rodriguez echoed Gerentine’s concern about process and the timing of when the legislature is informed about the progression of capital projects.

“So part of what we’re concerned about and part of the reason we’re actually having this meeting is literally because of a breakdown in communication and a breakdown of process of how we get informed when a project goes from what’s on paper, $1.6 [million], even if that’s just a placeholder, it then morphs into $2.8 [million] or $3.2 [million] depending upon how you’re accounting of the project. This is significant,” Rodriguez says. “And I understand this is a good project, right? I think we all want to vote for the project.”

Legislators and public commenters alike praised the planned program. Hein says Ulster County takes the state mandate further by offering a restorative justice component.

“This is a $3 million project but it pales in comparison with the $93 million that Ulster County spent only 10 years ago to incarcerate people on a law enforcement center,” says Hein. “And so the idea of being able to invest in children, truly children, 16- and 17-year-old kids who make mistakes, to be able to provide an alternative, to keep them out of a lifetime of jail, seems to me an incredibly smart use of our dollars.”

Hein expects the center to be under construction within 30 days, and the goal is for it to be completed by year’s end.

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