Local legislator candidates at odds on county jail solutions

Bond fund to study overcrowding options splits their ranks

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The question of what to do about the Dutchess County jail’s overcrowding and the associated rising costs continues to be one of the most divisive issues for local legislators.

The debate has recently been put on hold as the county awaits a green light from the state to bring temporary housing, called pods, to the current jail site in Poughkeepsie. County Executive Marc Molinaro told The Observer that the hold-up is that the state is signaling it won’t grant the necessary waiver for the housing unless the county commits to building a new jail. He said he expects to have an answer within 60 days.

The pods would house 200 inmates, and Molinaro’s office estimates that the county would save about $2 million, netted out from its costs for the pods, by that method instead of housing inmates at jails in other counties.

In addition to saving money, Molinaro said, having inmates onsite keeps them closer to family, legal representation, and the court. The pods would also allow the county to see what handling all the inmates onsite would be like, to start to build capacity internally.

Molinaro stressed that no decision has been made on whether building a new jail is the best option, and said the county must do further study before committing money to a solution.

“We are not committing ourselves to building anything unless it produces both a financial benefit to the taxpayer and a social benefit to the inmate,” he said. “This is a process-driven project, not an outcome-driven project, and the state needs to understand that.”

Once the pods are secured, the county will put out a request for proposals (RFP) for a study of the jail system, which would be funded with a $1.2 million bond approved by the county legislature in June. The study would be accomplished in 12 months, once it begins.

Ben Traudt (R), the legislator representing Red Hook who is running for reelection, voted for the bond, and told The Observer in September, “We haven’t committed to an option yet, we’ve just committed to finding a solution to the problem.”

Micki Strawinski (D) of Red Hook, who is running to unseat Traudt, has serious concerns about the jail plan. “The County’s own experts and advisors have already said the first step in solving our jail problem is better management of the existing criminal justice system–our county government needs to make a much bigger effort before asking taxpayers to foot the bill on a $200 million jail,” she said.

Debra Blalock (D), who represents four towns (Milan, Northeast, Pine Plains and Stanfordville), and is running for reelection, voted against the $1.2 million bond.

She told The Observer that she hopes when the next study goes forward, it will address the concerns outlined in a September report by the Dutchess Democratic Women’s Caucus, which compiled data from previous studies along with historical data on when the various jail facilities were built and recommended that the results be thoroughly reviewed prior to approving any funds for jail construction.

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