A debate over jail expansion in New York’s rural Dutchess County reflects the issues driving the spike in U.S. jail populations, and the arguments about how to address it.
New York’s Dutchess County, a leafy place of winding country roads, farms, and old mansions overlooking the Hudson River, is a haven for New York City professionals seeking a quieter country life and cheaper housing. But it has a grimmer side.
Unemployment and urban blight plague its small communities and, like many other rural jurisdictions around the country, it is facing growing problems of substance abuse and drug addiction.
The evidence is tragically visible in the Dutchess County jail, located in the county’s largest city of Poughkeepsie, which recorded a 50 percent increase in detentions between 1997 and 2016.
The 400 or so people currently held behind bars are straining the small facility (capacity 250), a solid-brick structure built in the 1980s located in a residential neighborhood near a golf course.
The overcrowding persuaded Republican county legislators last year to approve a $192 million bond issue to build both a new 596-bed jail and a new sheriff’s office.
Not everyone believes building a bigger jail is the answer to the county’s social problems.
Joel Tyner, a Democratic legislator in the county for the past 14 years, argues that taxpayers’ resources that could be better used to fund innovative strategies such as treatment counseling and alternatives to incarceration.
“We shouldn’t be arresting all of these people,” he says.
The debate over the Dutchess County jail is a microcosm of similar arguments across the U.S. heartland, where job losses, youth unemployment, economic underdevelopment—and the spreading opioid epidemic—fed the anger that helped elect President Donald Trump last fall.
The spike in jail detentions in rural areas like Dutchess is one of the key factors driving America’s increasing numbers of incarcerated individuals, according to a recent survey and report by the Vera Institute of Justice and the MacArthur Foundation’s Safety + Justice Challenge.
Some 30 percent of the 2.2 million people behind bars are in the nation’s 3,000 county jails, and rural areas have experienced the biggest increases, according to the Vera study.
The jail populations that have experienced the largest growth are in small counties, with populations under 250,000. Dutchess County’s population, which has grown from 280,000 to 297,000 since 2000, is just slightly above the sample.
Vera report co-authors Ram Subramanian and Jacob Kang-Brown trace the rural jail increase to two principal factors: more people awaiting trial, and the increased use of jail beds for individuals detained by other local governments or who are being held at the request of federal authorities (for alleged violations of immigration laws).
In Dutchess, there are no individuals held under Immigration and Customs Enforcement “detainers” (even though experts estimate as many as 60,000 undocumented immigrants work in Dutchess and nearby countries)—and authorities say there are no plans to use the new jail for those purposes.
But there has been an increase in the numbers of individuals awaiting trial—many of them detained for minor drug offenses. Dutchess County jail housed 278 individuals awaiting sentencing in 2016, making up more than half of the total.
Moreover, up to 80% of the people held in Dutchess county jail suffer from some combination of mental health issues and substance abuse, according to the Dutchess County Criminal Justice Council.
Defenders of the jail expansion in Dutchess County argue that increasing the number of beds will in fact help authorities address the behavioral issues that brought individuals into trouble with the law in the first place, while ensuring public safety.
“The current jail house was (not) built with the idea of restoring inmates’ lives,” said Marcus Molinaro, the County Executive and the main driving force behind building a new jail.
“I can find no legitimate reason to maintain the current county jail unless you think the warehouse model should be used going forward, which I don’t.”
The county’s District Attorney, William Grady, who was reelected in 2015 on a tough-on-crime platform, contends that it is too “risky” to free detainees awaiting trial.
“A drug-dependent individual who commits crimes to subsidize his habit is a risky person to have let go free in the community,” said Grady who predicts that the county’s jail population will grow even larger in coming years because of the influx of New York City residents seeking cheaper housing.
“Programming to treat those people is obviously most appropriate, but [they have] to wait for admittance to these programs by being held in jail,” he told The Crime Report
But legislators like Tyner and Francena Amparo, another county Democrat who was elected in 2011, say the county’s existing treatment facilities and programs, such as the Youth Bureau, which provides counseling and other services to at-risk youth, are in fact facing budget cuts.
“It’s pretty clear that substance abuse and mental issues are not being addressed enough,” Amparo said. “There aren’t enough rehabilitation facilities and clinics for those individuals, and they’re going to end up in jail at some point.”
Robert Wright, director of Nubian Directions, a youth-training program based in Poughkeepsie, said that school dropouts often end up getting caught in the criminal justice system.
“We’re seeing a lot of kids drop out of high school here and unfortunately many of them end up in jail,” Wright said.
The debate in Dutchess is also in some ways a reflection of a polarization in the political climate nationwide, where advocates of “tough on crime” measures now feel empowered by a federal government that is placing renewed emphasis on punishment.
Some local critics point out that Dutchess County Sheriff Adrian “Butch” Anderson, whose website describes him as a “cops’ cop,” was such a prominent and vocal supporter of Donald Trump during the last campaign that he was named to the President-elect’s transition team. The Trump/Pence ticket narrowly won the county last November with 58,163 votes (the Clinton/Kaine ticket got 56,874).
But critics of the Administration’s approach to justice argue that hardline strategies are especially counter-productive in smaller communities.
The Vera report, for instance singles out the five-fold increase in pretrial detainees since 1970 —from 82,900 people in 1970 to 462,000 in 2013, as a significant driver of the jail increase.
Cherise Fanno Burdeen, CEO of the Pretrial Justice Institute, a Washington, DC-based nonprofit, says many of those people don’t need to be in jail at all.
Economic factors—namely inability to afford bail—rather than criminal risk, are the main reasons why the pretrial population is so high, she says, adding that many rural jurisdictions could take a cue from urban areas that have begun to move away from the money bail system.
“Places like [Washington] D.C. don’t use money bail at all,” she told The Crime Report. ”They release about 95 percent of people pretrial. So it works and we know it works.”
At the same time, she argued, authorities should also reduce the number of arrests by issuing citations or summonses in lieu of arrest.
Detention in jails, she said, should be restricted to those at the “highest level” of risk to the community.
“We should be able to identify and detain those people lawfully instead of saying ‘million dollar bond’ and then being scared when they make it,” she said.
Nevertheless, in places like Dutchess County, attempting to implement these solutions can only happen if all the local players agree.
“A community would be better served by investing in community-based solutions (but) each county is going to be unique in its own way,” acknowledged Vera co-author Jacob Kang-Brown.
But he added: “Once enough places try solutions, they will then be able to land on what’s most effective, based on frequent experimentation.”
Such a consensus seems unlikely in Dutchess County, at least for now.
While the New York State legislature has earmarked about $550,000 for a “youth services and crime prevention study” in the county, according to a document by the county’s criminal justice council, no additional funds appear to have been set aside for creating new programs.
Tyner, the Dutchess County legislator, says he hasn’t given up trying to change the county’s criminal justice priorities.
“I’m trying to wake up my fellow democrats and activists who can help,” he says.
“It’s not too late.”
Eric Jankiewicz is a New York-based writer and a contributor to The Crime Report. He welcomes readers’ comments.