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November 18, 2010 - 1:03pm

Legal community makes a unified pitch at budget hearing to save Genesee Justice

posted by Howard B. Owens in genesee county, budget, Genesee Justice.

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It was a historic moment, Public Defender Gary Horton said.

"This may be the first time you have Judge (Robert) Noonan, (District Attorney Lawrence) Friedman and I all agree on something."

There was nothing but agreement from the two dozen or so speakers who took up the cause of Genesee Justice at the County Legislature's budget hearing Wednesday evening.

judge_noonan.jpgThe budget proposal calls for the elimination of Genesee Justice as a department and moving most of its current functions into the probation department.

The change could save the county $237,000, but several speakers said that Genesee Justice saves the county maybe as much as $1 million a year by helping to keep people out of jail.

Nothing against the Probation Department, many speakers said, but probation officers won't take the same approach in dealing with offenders and victims which Genesee Justice has done successfully for 30 years.

Speakers praised Genesee Justice as a pioneering "restorative justice" program. They characterized probation as a law enforcement agency -- one that takes more of a punitive approach in dealing with offenders.

"Probation officers carry weapons, they make arrests," said Oakfield Justice Thomas Graham. "Genesee Justice is more of a social agency, they handle casework, and they work very hard to help people make it through without sending them back to jail."

countybudg01.jpgAfter the meeting, Julie Smith, director of probation, said she disagrees with that characterization of her department.

"Probation is (also) an alternative to incarceration," Smith said. "There are about 700 offenders on our case load and if it wasn’t for us, they would be in jail.

"We are following offenders," Smith added. "We are checking up on them. We are in their lives."

According to County Manager Jay Gsell, the county budget picture is so dire -- more than 80 percent of the budget is state-mandated expenses -- that drastic measures are needed. The budget contains little that is discretionary and the direction of the legislature was to balance the budget without increasing the tax levy.

"If we were masters of our own fate, that would be a lot easier to do, but we’re not," Gsell said. "We are creatures of state government."

Genesee Justice is a pioneering agency in what is known as "restorative justice." It focuses on the needs of victims and offenders to help bring about some level of reconciliation, and to help offenders re-enter society as productive citizens rather treat offenders in a traditional law-and-order manner.

The local program was started with grants 30 years ago at a time when the concepts of restorative justice were rarely considered by judges or prosecutors. 

As one speaker noted, Genesee Justice has been cited in scholarly articles on restorative justice from around the world.

Among the functions handled by Genesee Justice are: supervising first-time DWI offenders who have been granted a conditional discharge; overseeing work-release programs and community service; helping victims of crime with getting through the judicial process; and receiving restitution payments and completing paperwork, as well as managing the "release-under-supervision" (RUS) program.

 

judge_robert_balbick.jpgGenesee Justice took over RUS from probation 2002. RUS allows courts to release alleged offenders prior to trial who don't qualify for release under their own recognizance but do not necessarily need to be held on bail.

Judges Robert Noonan, Robert Balbick, Thomas Graham, Michael Delplato, as well as Sheriff Gary Maha and District Attorney Lawrence Friedman all expressed concern that switching RUS back to probation would mean fewer alleged offenders would receive RUS status.

"The Genesee Justice program as it has developed is amazing in terms of keeping the jail population down," said Noonan. "I know probation says they can do it and I know they honestly believe they can do it.

"But I believe what you are going to see is a spike in the population at the jail and you are going to wind up paying dollars at the far end after eliminating a very, very important program."

Balbick said he just doesn't know what will happen if RUS is moved back to probation, and that worries him.

"The RUS program runs well because we have a department that runs it well," Balbick said. "I don’t know what it will be if probation runs it. Maybe they will run it well, but I don’t know. I do know that Genesee Justice runs it well."

jay_gsell.jpgOne speaker suggested it would take $30 million to build a new jail, if needed. Sheriff Maha noted that the current jail was constructed at its present capacity because there was a Genesee Justice program to help keep offenders out of jail.

"If the jail population increases, the State Commission of Correction will come down and tell us to do something about our increased population -- like build a new jail or put on an addition," Maha said. "We'll be like our neighbors to our south who had to build a jail addition to address their jail population."

Smith said that probation handled RUS for 26 years and they can easily take over the program again.

Several speakers said they believe the elimination of Genesee Justice is "a done deal," and that the local justice system community was not consulted first.

The repeated complaint was that only two people -- Gsell and Smith -- supported the plan and were pushing it through without a lot of outside input.

"It appears to me that the only people who are speaking out in favor of this proposal are the ones making the proposal," Friedman said. "They’re the only ones who appear to believe that it’s a good idea. Otherwise, from what I’m hearing, everyone involved in the criminal justice systems, thinks this is a bad idea."

Smith was quick to point out after the meeting that she's not the one who made the proposal.

sheriff_maha.jpg“This is at the direction of the legislature," Smith said. "The legislature asked me to look at. It’s nothing that I sought out. There’s a lot of misinformation out there (saying) that I sought to do this, but the legislature asked us to do this and we’ll do our best to step up to the plate."

Gsell said it certainly isn't a done deal.

"How can it be? The legislature hasn’t even voted," Gsell said. "This is what we go through every year when we make proposals on the budget. I make a proposal and that becomes what the legislators deal with. That’s where we’re at right now."

The legislators we spoke with after the meeting said they certainly haven't made up their minds and they want to discuss it further with other members of the legislature before making a decision.

Mary Pat Hancock, chairwoman of the legislature, said "we're hearing the concerns and considerations of the people, and we're certainly listening."

"We will consider it carefully," Hancock said. "This is presented as a tentative budget and we don’t pass a budget for another three weeks."

Legislator Jay Grasso noted that he took copious notes during the meeting and he looks forward to sitting down with his fellow legislators to hear what they think.

Most of all, he said, it was a big change from previous public hearings where few people show up and even fewer have anything to say.

"It’s democracy in action," Grasso said. "You should have people here. You should have people questioning what we do. You should have people saying, ‘well, why are you doing this?’ I found it unique and refreshing."

Photos: Top, Gary Horton holding up a button in support of Genesee Justice; County Judge Robert Noonan; Legislature Chairwoman Mary Pat Hancock; City Court Judge Robert Balbick; County Manager Jay Gsell; Sheriff Gary Maha.

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Peter O'Brien
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So its essentially a probation system outside the probation system? Dump it, criminals should be treated as such.
Kyle Couchman
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While at first my reaction is similar to Peter's I still think this is a perfect example of how our Govt now works. Seems that a couple of people summarily decided this program goes, without even consulting with those who use, work and are involved in this program. However they have been caught trying to ram it through and are now backpedaling because those whom they "thought" wouldn't object ( judges, DA's and Defense Attornies ) banded together in a strong opposition. The general pubic havent even weighed in yet. On another note methinks Mr. Grasso might be a bit busy hearing about other things from his fellow legislators to really do any justice to his notes on this meeting and subject matter ( just sayin ) :)
Bea McManis
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Up until a few hours ago, Peter knew nothing of this program. Now, apparently with far more information than those who spoke last night, it is his educated opinion that the program should be dumped. What do you know that the dozen or so people who spoke at the meeting don't? "Criminals should be treated as such". Peter what about the victims who are helped through this program. Should they be dumped by the wayside?
Peter O'Brien
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Short answer, yes. Longer answer they should be helped by charity, not government. What do I know that they don't... redundant programs need to be eliminated.
Kyle Couchman
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Bea.... People like Peter cant or wont ever think things thru that dont have a direct and immediate effect on them. Coming from Ithaca where we do have an issue with jail crowding and have to board out inmates I can tell you that fiscally this is irresponsible, it will cost triple the amount they saved eliminating the program. And those will be costs they cant say no to. Peter doesnt realize you can become criminalized very quickly in this day and age. I had a friend who had someone break into his apartment, he beat the person very badly, well turns out the justice system turned the tables on him and he ended up with a felony assault. Wont get into the details but all it takes is a dose of cold medicine, a moment not looking at the road, or just a hesitation at a critical moment to go from someone who never did anything wrong to a person in the system. Then he would be crying for this "redunant" system. So allow him his opinion and just hope or pray he never has cause to change it, because the one person he cant escape judgement from is himself.
John Roach
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Bea, It all comes down to how much in taxes you are willing to pay and for what. Since you were at the meeting, did anyone say how much more property owners will have to pay to keep this program? And, if we keep this program, but hold taxes steady, then what other program would you, in your opinion, think could be cut. Of course, we can just raise taxes and keep everything. It is an option.
James T. Hansen
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I don't understand this comment.. "The change could save the county $237,000, but several speakers said that Genesee Justice saves the county maybe as much as $1 million a year by helping to keep people out of jail." and this comment... "There are about 700 offenders on our case load and if it wasn’t for us, they would be in jail." The population of Batavia has stayed the same for 100 years. Yet the jail population has increased significantly more? Did Batavian's really raise so many bad kids? (rhetorical)
Peter O'Brien
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Kyle you said you come from Ithaca, Hippie capital of NY. Its no wonder you never met a government program you didn't liked. You assume I don't know the laws and therefore don't know how one can become a criminal, I do. And millions of people everyday are able to stay out of trouble, must just be good luck and not a desire to lead a good life and pay attention. Your friend went above stopping the home invasion and criminally attacked a person. His mistake is not having a gun to end it quickly and not allow the other person his side of the story. Also once the person is willing to flee you have protected yourself and you don't need to injure them further. Sorry but its the law. Deal with it.
Kyle Couchman
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LOL Peter anyone who uses this medium can see I was not part of the Hippie movement there in Ithaca, butted heads quite literally with the liberal establishment. But my mind isnt so closed as to not see the whole picture most of the time or to dismiss ideas because I dont the the source of them. Yes people can stay out of trouble, but it isnt an astronomical impossibility to fall thru the cracks or be a victim of circumstance, no matter how much of a desire you have to lead a good life or pay attention. And as my friend was woken from a sound sleep, he wasnt thinking clearly, the person attacked him first trying to subdue him, he was under the impression it was a life or death situation, the perp even came to and tried to launch himeself after my friend from the gurney they were carting him off in. Thats in front of witnesses both medical and law enforcement professionals. But in NY the actual law states if there is an avenue of escape if must be used in lieu of force, there is no man's home is his castle law here. He is actually lucky he didn't follow your recommended course of action, shooting and killing the guy would have had him up on a manslaughter charge. So if it had been you, you would be doing some time, sorry but THATS the law as well so apparently you gont know the laws as well as you think. Just an FYI I absolutely hate and detest alot of gov't programs just on the basis of its abuse and lack of competent regulation alone.
John Roach
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Peter, So now you determine if a person is a liberal or not based on where he is from? How did you come up with that?
Peter O'Brien
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That combined with his defense of a redundant government program, I had very good odds.
Kyle Couchman
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How is it redundant? Obviously people with more qualifications and expereince in this particular subject have been vocal on the fact that this program would not be run as well or succeed if just turned over to the other program. Also having 9 people running the program, how many people will have to be hired to add to the staff of probation to maintain the level of service. Then you can also factor in the cost of boardouts and transportation costs for those who will have to end up in jail instead. What about how this appears to the rest of the country as well. This program has national scrutiny and is doign very well and impressing those that are watching it. Then the local Govt cuts it just to save a few dollars that'll end up being more expensive because of the program's abscence? Surely not the same people that MUST spend thousands just so the bricks of a public building can be red again and not embarass us.
Peter O'Brien
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Its essentially a probation system outside the probation system is it not?
Bea McManis
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Why would the local legal community band together to stress that this is a needed program? Your answer, Peter, is inadequate. You didn't know about this program yesterday. Today, you are an expert and know more than the lawyers and judges who appeared at this meeting. How did that happen?
John Roach
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Again, it comes down to money. The report said the the County will face a $5 million dollar shortfall. The legislature said no tax increase, so soemthing has to give. Either they change their mind and raise taxes, or make cuts. So what should be cut or should we raise taxes (good poll question)?

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