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Gerace: Bail Reform Wouldn’t Work Here

MAYVILLE – Bail reform in New York state may sound good on paper, but it won’t help solve congestion at jails. At least not here, Chautauqua County Sheriff Joe Gerace said.

New York Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman earlier this month said bail reform is long overdue to allow nonviolent defendants to be released and not kept in jail due to a lack of money.

Lippman said pre-trial or sentence detention is clogging local jails, and noted that setting bail based on public safety needs to be explored; bail currently is set by judges to ensure defendants return to court.

“Clearly there should be a presumption in nonviolent offenses that you’re released unless you’re a threat to public safety or a threat to flee the jurisdiction,” Lippman said. “Alternatives and conditions to bail need to be made clear. It’s not clear what judges can do right now.”

The chief judge said defendants of misdemeanor and nonviolent cases should be released with supervision or on their own recognizance. At least two Democratic state lawmakers are in favor of bail reform.

When asked of Lippman’s push, Gerace said altering the bail system would not alleviate the population at the County Jail. In fact, the sheriff said nearly all cases involving misdemeanor defendants are repeat offenders and should be detained.

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“I think judges should be left to decide bail amounts at their own discretion,” Gerace said. “They are the ones dealing with the people every day.”

According to the Sheriff’s Office, 92 percent of defendants with misdemeanor charges at the County Jail have been detained previously. That means many nonviolent inmates at the Mayville facility already have been given a break once before, Gerace said.

“A lot of them are repeat offenders,” he said. “The judges have dealt with them before and probably gave them low bail.”

Gerace noted reforming the bail system, even in an attempt to reduce population, would take authority away from local judges. And in the end, it’s a slow-moving judicial system that keeps defendants at the jail at a cost to taxpayers, he said.

“I would disagree with taking authority away from those who are elected to make those determinations,” Gerace said. “… The best way to free up the system is to move them along.”

Consider the following: The County Jail currently houses 108 inmates facing felony charges, many of whom typically receive high bail and are facing multiple charges. Some of those defendants are facing felony violent charges; one inmate facing a murder charge, Anthony Robert Taglianetti II, has bail at $2.5 million.

“There are some violent people that pose a public safety problem,” Gerace said. “Some of them can make bail and some can’t.”

Meanwhile, there are 70 inmates facing a misdemeanor charge, the sheriff said. There are also 34 federal prisoners, for whom the county receives a reimbursement for the costs of housing.

The county does implore a supervised-release and release-on-recognizance program. David Foley, Chautauqua County district attorney, said his office looks at several factors before making recommendations for bail or release.

“You’re always going to look at the nature of the offense,” Foley said. “You also want to look at the address. Do they live in the county?

“But we really look at their criminal history. Have they not shown up to court after posting bail? There is a lot that we look at.”

Foley noted a pilot program within Jamestown City Court that provides legal counsel for indigent defendants. The County Legislature last year further funded the state-recognized program for the District Attorney’s Office; a state grant will keep the Public Defender’s Office in the program, as well.

The theory behind the pilot, the district attorney said, is to ensure proper counsel is present during arraignment and refrain from sending unnecessary defendants to the County Jail. Foley and Ned Barone, Chautauqua County public defender, told the legislature’s Public Safety Committee in July the program has helped reduce the jail’s population.

“We’re at the arraignment where bail is typically set,” Foley said. “You want to get ahead of it and prevent situations where taxpayers are funding someone to sit in the jail.”