The Dutchess County legislature will hold a special meeting Monday evening to vote on a bond resolution to fund a new jail. The question of funding a jail of its proposed size and cost has brought out supporters and detractors in recent days, with petitions, robocalls, and attempts to swing legislators’ votes in either direction.
The resolution is to borrow up to $192 million for the new jail, or the Dutchess County Justice & Transition Center, which includes two projects — a new jail and a new law enforcement center for the sheriff’s department. The jail would be 297,000 square feet with up to 569 beds, built at the site of the current facility. Republican Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro says the issue of new jail construction has been in front of county taxpayers since 1995 and the time to act is now.
“If we do no act and this bond fails, we will sustain a jail facility that was built at a time and in a place where the priority and focus was warehousing individuals. If we vote yes, and we proceed, Dutchess County will demolish that building of yesteryear and build in its place something that treats individuals with as great a degree of humanity and compassion as possible in the hopes of not incarcerating but, in fact, helping them, the individual within our care, to break the cycle of crime, address issues of mental illness and addiction,” says Molinaro. “We are building a restorative justice system in Dutchess County that will be a model for America.”
Micki Strawinski, a Democrat, is minority leader of the county legislature. She says the project’s cost would negatively impact residents and business owners in terms of taxes.
“No matter what the Administration is painting as a rosy picture that there’s going to be a decrease in the overall debt, I just don’t see how a project of $192 million plus other projects that we have been assured will move forward at a cost of $93 million and knowing that union contracts will be up for ratification throughout the next several years, there’s no way that the county can say that our taxes will not increase and that I can’t imagine will be able to stay under the cap unless we decimate services,” says Strawinski.
She says she would support some jail expansion, but not the current proposal. Dale Borchert is Dutchess County legislature chairman and lays out what happens if the legislature votes no.
“We would immediately have to start housing out again. And those housing out costs, the last time we did it full time, was well over $8 million. We would expect that to rise just as time goes by. We would need to pay for the temporary pods that we had installed about two years ago. We would still be paying for them. We would have to do capital improvements on our current jail and we would have to maintain all of the corrections officers that we have now resulting in actually paying more money in the long term than if we did not bond out,” says Borchert. “I think the difference is if we build this jail, it’s about a $274 million hit over the course of the bond but, if we don’t build the jail, it’s about $310 that we’d be paying.”
Jay Mehta, campaign director for the Working Families Party in New York, objects to the new jail proposal.
“Right size means what this facility can, what you can basically hold in terms of inmates but also understanding that this is a bigger problem than just incarcerating lots and lots of Dutchess County residents,” says Mehta. “This goes to the drug addiction problems, the mental health problems that are occurring in this county and those have to be addressed first.”
There are at least two petitions denouncing the new jail. One is from the Dutchess County Democratic Committee. Another is from the Working Families Party, which had just north of 3,500 signatures as of Monday morning with a goal of 4,000 signatures. It’s called colorofchange. Again, Mehta.
“While approximately 11 percent of the population in Dutchess County is African-American, almost 37, 39 percent are incarcerated, and that’s a problem,” says Mehta. “That’s a problem if we’re developing a jail and kind of sending a message to black youth that this is the future.”
County Executive Molinaro responds:
“I am as sensitive as anyone to the fact that there are inequities within the criminal justice system and we are building a model that will confront those candidly,” says Molinaro. “And I suggest this nation needs to do that,” says Molinaro.
Meanwhile, another opponent is nonpartisan group Common Cause New York, which put out a statement saying with overall crime dropping in Dutchess County, legislators should seek lower-cost, creative alternatives. Molinaro and fellow Republicans underscore the creative aspect of the current proposal and the higher cost that would come if the proposal is rejected. And Dutchess Against the Jail, a coalition of civic, policy and community associations and Democratic members of the Dutchess County Legislature, will voice their concerns in front of the county government building in Poughkeepsie at 4:30 p.m. The legislature’s special meeting kicks off at 6 p.m.