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Assessment team to ID, divert jail inmates with mental, substance woes

March 31, 2016
By A.J. Rao ( , Westfield Republican

Beginning April 1, an assessment and care coordination team at the Chautauqua County Jail will start identifying and diverting eligible inmates suffering from mental illness or substance abuse.

The goal, according to Patricia Brinkman, director of the county's mental hygiene department, is to prevent these inmates from languishing and taking up space in the jail, where adequate treatment and rehabilitation services are simply not available.

Brinkman said the team, by identifying eligible inmates as soon as they arrive at the jail, can potentially expedite an inmate's release and link them with the appropriate treatment provider and supportive housing unit - ultimately reducing their chances of recidivism.

On Wednesday, members of the county's Criminal Justice Coordinating Council gathered in Mayville to discuss the team's makeup.

According to Brinkman, its members will include a care coordinator, a social worker/clinician, a psychiatrist and a probation officer. Other key players will include the jail's corrections officers and the public defender's liaison with the jail.

Michelle Harriger, with the Chautauqua County Department of Social Services, is slated to be the jail's care coordinator, while Tamie Gates, a licensed clinical social worker, is the designated social worker.

Dr. Israr A. Abbasi of Lakewood will be the psychiatrist on hand.

While the team has already begun providing services at the jail, Brinkman said the care coordinator will not be in place until April 1.

The Chautauqua County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council formed last year to address the jail's inflated population, which, in many cases, is comprised of inmates who are unable to afford bail or are simply awaiting a sentence.

The ensuing lack of space, according to county officials, has prevented the jail from housing more federal inmates and collecting revenue, which, depending on the availability of federal inmates, can cost the county upward of $1 million dollars a year.

Moreover, each inmate costs the jail an average of $76 a day, and with accompanying medical issues, the jail can see additional costs soar into the thousands.

At Wednesday's meeting, Joe Gerace, county sheriff, said the jail population has been moving in a positive direction, hovering around 209 local inmates and 36 federal inmates.

This, he said, is a far cry from the jail population of the past year and a half, in which local inmates often hovered near 290 and federal inmates below five.

"Communication through the coordinating council had a lot to do with (the positive change) as well as getting the attention of people at the (state level) on moving cases more rapidly and the setting of appropriate bails," Gerace said. "However, we can't stop keeping it as a priority or it will be like the 'rubber band effect,' and we go back to the way it was before."

Gerace said inmates who have been sentenced on felony charges or who violate a probation sentence that stemmed from a felony charge should go to state prison instead of remaining in the county jail.

He also those inmates who have been in the jail for more than six months and have yet to be sentenced need to have their cases expedited through the court system.

"It's to the inmate's advantage to stall for as long as they can," said Captain James Crowell, county jail warden. "The longer they hold out, the better the deal they're going to get. It's like buying a car ... so they're in no big hurry to plead guilty."

Patrick Swanson, acting county district attorney, said a lot of inmates who have been in jail for more than six months are simply dealing with the reality of the criminal justice system, which, when they enter a plea, includes a pre-sentence process that could take 6-8 weeks.

"Some (inmates) may be awaiting sentence or awaiting a trial and are on the trial calendar," Swanson said. "We can't force a defendant to plead guilty. We negotiate cases with what we believe is a fair and reasonable disposition and sometimes that's not accepted. We deal with the speed and swiftness of the court system, and sometimes that's not as fast as we'd prefer it to go."

The County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council is scheduled to meet again on May 25 at 3 p.m. at the Gerace Office Building, room B-10, in Mayville.



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