Legal community makes a unified pitch at budget hearing to save Genesee Justice
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.
The 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."
After 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.
Genesee 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."
One 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.
“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.