suffolk county jail

2020 New York Press Association Better Newspaper Contest: Crime Story, First Place

Judge’s Comment: This story offers a clear, concise and fascinating look into bail reform. A good lead draws in the reader, and this one certainly did. A clear standout in the category.

By Greg Wehner, Staff Writer

(Jan. 22, 2020) Someone driving by the Suffolk County Correctional Facility in Riverside at night might notice that the first and second floors are illuminated — but the third floor is dark.

The cells on the empty deck, all locked off by several gates, are filled with art. The gang-laden pencil drawings on the walls could be referred to as graffiti, although each one gives a glimpse into the past inmates’ lives. Some of the drawings included the Latin Kings crown; others included prayer hands and crosses.

Occasionally, a dripping toilet or knocking gate latch gives the perception of a presence there. But the truth is, it’s an empty space.

The county’s correctional facilities were overpopulated in the 1990s, but now they are filled to only approximately 45 percent capacity. Combined, the facilities in Riverside and Yaphank can hold up to 1,683 inmates. Prior to October, there were close to 1,050 inmates occupying cells — those sentenced for minor misdemeanor offenses and others awaiting trial.

In the months leading up to the implementation of new criminal justice reform legislation in Albany at the beginning of the year — part of which eliminated cash bail for most misdemeanors and non-violent felony offenses — jail officials released 301 inmates; under the new rules they could not be held because of their inability to pay bail. Some of the offenses that were determined to be non-violent, therefore non-bailable for people charged but not yet convicted of the crime, included third-degree assault, aggravated vehicular assault, aggravated assault on a person less than 11 years old, criminally negligent homicide, aggravated vehicular homicide, third- and fourth-degree arson, first-degree grand larceny, criminal possession of a weapon on school grounds, promoting an obscene sexual performance by a child, possessing an obscene sexual performance of a child, and promoting a sexual performance by a child.

Suffolk County Sheriff Errol D. Toulon Jr. said last week that he was deeply concerned about the release of the 301 inmates — but even more so with the rules surrounding who can and cannot be held on bail.

“I think we all want an equitable system, but the crimes that were incorporated in this legislation are some of the things that are most concerning to me and members of the law enforcement community,” he said. “I’m not only concerned about public safety but also the safety of any law enforcement officer out there.”

Like Sheriff Toulon, several law enforcement agencies are struggling with the new criminal justice reform law, mostly because judges no longer have at their discretion the ability to set bail on factors such as whether a person is a repeat offender or fails to appear in court. Instead, judges are allowed to request bail only for serious offenses that are violent or sexual in nature.

Sheriff Toulon pointed to an incident in New York City, where a man charged with committing four bank robberies was released on his own recognizance, and then, authorities said, went out and committed a fifth. Although the man was not armed when he allegedly committed the robberies, Sheriff Toulon said the fact that the man was released and put back into the community without any sort of rehabilitation was a concern.

But the purpose of bail can often be misconstrued. Traditionally, cash bail was solely to ensure that someone accused of a crime returned to court for their trial. If they didn’t show up to court, the money would be forfeited.

“It’s not a punishment,” Sheriff Toulon said. “It’s really just to ensure that an individual returns back to court.”

Before the new law was implemented, he said, judges had more discretion when it came to holding a person on bail.

Critics of the cash bail system maintain that it was an unfair system that allowed wealthier people to get out of jail because they could afford to pay, while those with lesser means were left in jail until their trial — which could be months after they were arrested. The inability for people to pay often led to overpopulated jails.

In the late 1990s, New York State lawmakers mandated that the county expand its correctional facilities because they were overcrowded.

There were so many inmates that the county either had to ship prisoners out to other jails, expand the facilities or build a new jail. As a result, the county spent hundreds of millions of dollars to expand the Yaphank facility.

In Riverside, the cells each hold one prisoner. During the overpopulated years, beds were placed in a common area outside of the individual cells for additional inmates.

Even back then, some people pleaded that the overcrowding issue could be solved by reevaluating the bail system.

Then-Suffolk County Legislator Peter O’Leary said at the time that 70 percent of the jail’s population was made up of “serious felons,” and that it would probably be a bad idea to let them out on the streets. But non-violent offenders, like someone awaiting trial or sentencing for driving without a license, or even burglary, who could not afford to pay bail should have some sort of alternative to sitting in a cell.

Many of the 301 inmates who were released prior to January 1 would have been held on bail under the prior system, depending on the severity of the crime and the defendant’s past history.

“Judges used to have some discretion on whether or not an individual should be held on bail,” Sheriff Toulon said. “Now, it is black and white — no bail for these crimes, regardless of the impact to the community. The offender will be given a court date and told to come back for court.”

Sheriff Toulon, on Tuesday, joined several other local law enforcement officials and police unions to announce the formation of the “Common-Sense Coalition,” which will work toward coming up with suggestions for amending the state’s bail reform law.

Another part of the Criminal Justice Reform legislation, which went into effect on January 1, was how discovery material, or material used by police departments to prove probable cause for criminal charges, would be handled. Under the new law, all discovery material must be submitted by a police department to the district attorney within 15 days of an arraignment.

The material includes evidence like video surveillance of commercial or private residences, calibration records for a speed gun if a person is charged with speeding, statements made by the defendant after being read their Miranda rights, and notes from an officer’s memo book.

East Hampton Town Police Chief Michael Sarlo, on Tuesday, said that due to discovery reform, processing arrests and working with the district attorney’s office to verify receipt of the paperwork is taking a longer time, although he did not offer specifics.

He added that the department is busy cleaning up how it processes arrests and evaluating internal procedures before the busy summer season kicks off.

“We could lose many, many patrol hours to officers sitting in headquarters processing arrests through the DAs, and expend a great deal of overtime,” Chief Sarlo said. “We also continue to be concerned about minor violations and summonses, and the overall impact on public safety and quality of life this reform bill will have on the effectiveness of our enforcement efforts.”

In terms of community safety and the impacts the law could have, he said East Hampton Town has been lucky — so far.

“However, as recent high-profile cases have shown, there is a serious flaw in part of this reform, which doesn’t consider past criminal history or severity of certain charges and does not consider numerous offenses ‘violent’ or the defendants posing any risk to the community at large,” he said.

Sheriff Toulon said there are programs in place at the Suffolk County Correctional facilities that are rehabilitative in nature, so when an inmate is released back into the public, they have something to offer. The new law may deprive some defendants of the opportunity to take advantage of those programs, he said.

For example, 18-to-25-year-old inmates work a 40-hour workweek in a program called “Choose Your Path,” and outside of the workweek, skills such as small engine repair, landscaping and carpentry are taught. While the inmates won’t become master apprentices in the programs, he said, the skills are transferable when they get out of jail.

He also said many people committing robberies and burglaries have substance abuse issues that can be addressed through incarceration.

Sheriff Toulon said he has spoken with parents of inmates who said jail is saving their son’s or daughter’s life, especially when they are addicted to drugs. “It gives an individual the opportunity to, hopefully, get a clearer head, address their issues and hopefully leave here a little better,” he said.

Stripping away a judge’s ability to require bail is not the solution, he added. Judges have the discretion to put individuals in diversion programs such as youth court, veterans court and drug court, if the defendant meets the criteria to enter the program.

Sheriff Toulon said if the judges have the discretion to put inmates in those programs, they should have the discretion for bail, especially if a defendant has a history of not returning to court when told.

“I’m not saying jail is the stop-all gap,” Sheriff Toulon said. “The biggest thing for me is to have a judge have that discretion to make that decision.”

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