First Line Of Defense

Five days a week Shayleen Taylor makes her way to the Jamestown City Jail.

As an investigator for the Chautauqua County Public Defender’s Office, Taylor is tasked with making contact with inmates and determining eligibility for counsel. Her presence in jail and in court is possible with state funding for indigent defenders – those who cannot afford legal defense, starting at arraignment.

“Every morning I go to each inmate at the city jail and I ask them, ‘Are you working? How much do you make?'” said Taylor, who spends most of her time in a tiny conference room just feet away from the city courtroom.

“A lot of the inmates aren’t working,” she said. “We let them know what their charges are; half the time they don’t even know what they are being charged.”

As part of a pilot project in its third year, an attorney with the Public Defender’s Office is present during arraignments of indigent defenders. Members of the office, including Public Defender Ned Barone, rotate to appear in court every morning.

Inmates at the city jail are escorted into the courtroom and are represented by a public defender. Those who post bail or are issued appearance tickets receive the same representation on their court date. Someone from the District Attorney’s Office also is present during arraignment.

The goal of the pilot, Taylor said, is to get certain inmates released and avoid incarceration at an overcrowded Chautauqua County Jail. “We will plead to the judge to get a release under the supervision of probation or for community service,” she said.

Without representation, many inmates likely would be committed to jail, Taylor said.

A grant from the state Office of Indigent Legal Services has kept an additional investigator in the Public Defender’s Office to examine charges and determine eligibility for inmates. The Chautauqua County Legislature has funded a prosecutor to be in court at the same time.

“I think it’s important that both parties are in court,” District Attorney David Foley said recently.

SYSTEM OVERLOAD

Investigators handling indigent defenders in Jamestown City Court have a hectic schedule. Taylor said she was hired to work part-time, about 17 hours a week. However, after starting more than two years ago the position changed to a full-time, 40- to 50-hour workweek.

Anywhere from one to a dozen new inmates are interviewed every day in jail. Most cannot afford bail, or an attorney.

“These people can’t afford $50 for bail, let alone $500,” Taylor said. “I feel that without this project people with a simple harassment (charge) that can’t afford bail are going to jail.”

“We can now stand up for them and say, ‘Look, he’s going to work and he doesn’t have any prior arrests. Can we just release him?'”

Chautauqua County Sheriff Joe Gerace recently announced plans to form a taskforce to find alternative forms of incarceration. The sheriff said the County Jail is at maximum capacity in certain housing units, and noted some inmates were being shipped to surrounding facilities. The taskforce was expected to organize this month and report to the County Legislature.

FACE TO FACE, OVER

THE COMPUTER

Hoping to improve communication with inmates, meetings done through videoconferencing have become commonplace at the County Jail. The system was implemented by the Sheriff’s Office three months ago, and allows the Public Defender’s Office office to speak confidentially with inmates directly at the jail.

The system has proven so practical, Barone said he can relay an offer by the District Attorney’s Office to a client in custody from a laptop at home.

“I can’t tell you how helpful this has been for us,” Barone said. “When we’re trying to help people get out of jail, this allows us to communicate a lot faster and get things moving.”

“It could take hours to get processed in the jail and sit down with a client,” he said. “I can sit at home and get it done.”

When investigating, the video system allows inmates to tell their side of the story. During a recent interview with The Post-Journal, Taylor spoke with two inmates by video – taking notes and requesting contact information to corroborate their versions of events.

Taylor conducts these conferences frequently, and securely, more than 20 miles away from the jail inside a leased office above the courtroom in Jamestown.

“I really enjoy my work,” Taylor said. “I love helping those who struggle financially and deserve help.”

IS THE PILOT SUCCESSFUL?

That depends on who’s asked. The legislature last year heard from Barone, Gerace and Foley when funding for the pilot was renewed. Barone noted his office would remain in court regardless due to the grant.

Gerace, however, said the jail had not seen a decrease in population as a result of the pilot project in Jamestown City Court. In fact, he said it was almost impossible to determine what role the pilot plays in population rates.

Foley, who said it was important to keep his office in court during arraignments as well, said of the pilot, “It’s hard to quantify the data. There is so much that has to be taken into account.”

But Barone views success differently.

“This shouldn’t be about looking at the jail population and saying, ‘Yes, it’s working, or no it’s not.’ While it would be great if this helped reduce the jail population, it should really be about representing someone who has that basic right to counsel.”

“We are able to always have someone in Jamestown Court during arraignments, which is one of the most crucial points in the process. To me that means we have been successful.”