MAYVILLE - A state-recognized pilot program within the Jamestown City Court system has received some county assistance.
But lawmakers want to see some official results before handing over more money to keep it going.
The legislature Wednesday approved a $3,497 appropriation to continue funding a pilot program that provides legal counsel for indigent defendants while at arraignment. The funding will be used to temporarily support personnel in the district attorney's office.
Court Pilot Program
"I wouldn't be doing my job if I just stood by and didn't push for this pilot's continuation," said Bob Whitney, D-Jamestown, in a news release. "As a county legislator, my first and foremost responsibility is to the taxpayers, and I'll do everything possible to support government cost-cutting measures like this pilot."
The resolution presented to the legislature originally requested $20,982 for the district attorney's office to continue its presence at the court.
Bill Coughlin, D-Fredonia, former county public defender, however, criticized the program for not reducing the local population at the County Jail, which was used as a selling point when lawmakers last year OK'd a $90,000 payment out of the sheriff's budget to fund the pilot.
Coughlin added that the district attorney's office should be present at arraignment regardless of county support, and noted their yearly budget was enough to sustain the position within the city court.
"The theory was, it would cut back on the jail population," he said, "and somehow we could use those beds to have federal prisoners come in and enhance revenue for the sheriff. That was what the original purpose of the pilot program.
"Since that's happened, there's not one iota ... one bit of credible evidence that that worked; there was no enhanced revenue, there was no reduction in the people in jail. It doesn't work, and that's after a year. That's a fact."
Keith Ahlstrom, D-Dunkirk, too, questioned the results of the pilot, and noted that no formal presentation by the district attorney or public defender's office has been given. He also questioned why David Foley, county district attorney, was not present during committee or the legislature to lobby for the funding.
Foley said he was never asked to speak to the legislature, but noted that having all parties present at arraignment is crucial in court proceedings.
"It requires all the legal elements, including the courts who make the decision," Foley said to The Post-Journal. "I don't think it's workable alone with just the public defender's office."
In response to Coughlin's criticism that the DA's office should pay for its representation, Foley said, "It's not about the budget, it's the man power to cover everything we have in this office. Our caseloads have increased by 20 percent and we had to hire a part-time worker for the program. Without the funding we would have to let them go."
After some discussion by lawmakers, Ahlstrom requested the resolution be amended to keep the district attorney present at arraignment for an additional 30 days. During that time, a report will be given to the legislature's Public Safety Committee by both offices involved in the pilot. The legislature approved the 30-day funding extension.
As for the public defender's office at arraignment, state funding has come through.
Ned Barone, county public defender, said his office received a grant from the state Indigent Legal Services Office to fund a portion of the pilot. Barone said whether the highly recognized program continues in Jamestown is up to the city court, but noted that his office will continue to be present at arraignments.
"... I will be devoting some of those monies to continuing the program," Barone said of the grant. "Therefore, we're not asking this legislature for any money for our office."
He added, "I just want to advise the body that this a critical and important program that we're running. It's been recognized throughout New York state as a pioneer in this type of program."
The public defender's office will receive $89,000 a year through the three-year non-competitive grant, Barone said.
Sheriff Joe Gerace, meanwhile, said he would continue to support the pilot program as long as it wasn't his office footing the bill.
The sheriff said he hasn't seen a reduction in the local population at the County Jail as a result of the pilot, although he admitted it's hard to "quantify the data."
"I do continue to support the program, and it was a recommendation by a group of consultants that studied how to reduce jail population or level it," Gerace said in committee. "I was also very public about saying I didn't agree with the funding mechanism."
"It shouldn't be funded out of the budget of the sheriff's office because it is hard to quantify what a judge's decision is going to be and was he going to send that guy to jail anyway," he continued. "So it is hard for us to get statistical data."
The pilot began last year at the behest of former legislator Rudy Mueller, who is currently running against Andy Goodell, R-Chautauqua County, for the 150th Assembly District seat.