A new world of public safety is upon us, one that has been brewing for many years and directly affects each and every one of us and our families. From local legislative chambers to Albany, every day public safety is being threatened by policymakers who ignorantly or willfully fail to grasp that laws, regulations and policy initiatives must be enacted without compromising the law-enforcement institutions and personnel that are the cornerstone of the criminal-justice system.
In 2019 alone we saw a number of legislative proposals and enactments that have threatened the sanctity of public safety. From the temporarily sidelined HALT legislation seeking to curb custodial management methods in jails/prisons to the sweeping changes in bail reform effective Jan. 1, 2020, these well-intentioned policies are being mis-implemented and dangerously compromise law enforcement’s ability to effectively protect and promote public safety.
In the haste to enact such change, the new bail reforms appear to have been implemented with very little thought as to the impact on public safety. The new laws will essentially eliminate pre-trial detention and cash bail on nearly 90 percent of misdemeanor and nonviolent felony arrests. This means criminal defendants will be given desk-appearance tickets, released on their own recognizance and be expected to voluntarily return to court.
Judges can no longer consider a defendant’s criminal history or whether he or she poses a danger to the community. The list of non-bailable offenses will now include crimes such as criminally negligent homicide, other lesser degrees of assault, manslaughter, drug possession with intent to sell and burglary. With this realization, not surprisingly, many are now clamoring for a roll-back of these reforms.
With these changes in bail reform, jail populations will significantly be lowered initially. With these reduced populations will come a knee-jerk reaction to question minimum-staffing levels. For example, on Nov. 25, 2019, during the Budget & Appropriations Committee Meeting, Westchester County Correction Commissioner Joseph Spano fielded many questions about minimum-staffing standards, with the main focus of the inquiries on saving money.
Staffing minimums are set by the State Commission of Correction because they are deemed to be, at minimum, what is necessary and required to maintain not only safe jail operations and the security of all jail constituencies—inmates, officers and civilian staff alike—but also the safety of the public at large. Staffing is based on operational needs dictated by fluctuations in a number of factors, including increases in officer duties inside or outside the jail facility.
Burden of Mentally Ill
The needs of the inmate population, especially those with mental-health issues, is an area of special concern.
New York has seen a drastic cut in the number of psychiatric beds available for the mentally ill, and with a lack of treatment facilities and programs, they often find themselves involved in the criminal-justice system, another under-funded system at the threshold of failure. The mentally ill are swelling the shelters, jails and prisons; they sprawl out in public spaces, bus stops, ATMs, parks and sidewalks, or roam the streets. They challenge the general-public quality of life and sometimes, life itself.
Forced to act, law enforcement is tasked with the clean-up for crimes ranging from petty larceny and criminal trespass to manslaughter; and under the new laws may only garner desk-appearance tickets.
Inside the correctional setting, these social constraints are not automatically realized. Correction officers are forced to promote order and protect the mentally ill from self-harm and harm to others. Tasked with oversight, observation and intervention on a daily basis for the most-dangerous mentally ill, there can be as many as a dozen constant observation posts in a 24-hour period.
Broken down and simplified, this equates to a single officer per inmate on three shifts for up to 72 hours if not longer, based on mental-health evaluations, quarter-hour documentation and daily monitoring.
Increased inmate programs and services, the need to ensure there is no forced overtime, and workforce attrition plus the unknown long-term impact of bail reform and a potential increase in the population of sentenced inmates mean that moving forward, there is no question that current staffing levels are necessary.
Correction officers’ work is not limited to providing security within jail cells. One example: The Westchester Department of Correction, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, has been in the vanguard among correctional institutions in the provision of rehabilitation and re-entry programs.
There are currently 32 programs offering inmates a variety of tools, strategies, therapies, and skill-development opportunities that ensure an inmate’s successful transition back into the community in a way that reduces their risk of relapse and recidivism. These programs are provided onsite at the Westchester County Jail under the watchful eye of correction officers who not only provide inmate escorts to and from the programs, but also ensure a safe, non-violent environment for inmates and civilian instructors in which the programs can be administered.
Many of our correction officers participate and immerse themselves in these programs like the Youthful Offender Program, wherein they serve as positive role models and lead by example. Without correction officers providing integral safety and security, the goals and objectives of these programs, which ultimately protect and promote public safety, could not be met.
I implore our law- and policymakers to come visit the Westchester County Jail. Come learn about how the Department of Correction—a nationally accredited institution offering exemplary inmate programs—operates. Learn about what we as correction officers do to make this institution a success. Ours is a 24-hours-a-day, 7-days-a-week, 365-days-a-year job that ensures public safety regardless of whether it’s days, nights, weekends or holidays.
Come learn about our training, the duties we have both inside and outside of the jail, and how we perform them with the utmost professionalism while risking injury and illness to ourselves each and every day. After all, our safety depends on it.
Mr. Pellone is president of the Westchester Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association.
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