03/08/15 8:00am
County Executive Steve Bellone (center) touts the benefits of the county's new sex offender monitoring efforts in Hauppauge last week. (Credit: Tim Gannon)

County Executive Steve Bellone (center) touts the benefits of the county’s new sex offender monitoring efforts in Hauppauge last week. (Credit: Tim Gannon)

East End towns and villages are now under political and media pressure to participate in Suffolk County’s sex offender monitoring program. This program is operated, under contract with the county, by the Parents for Megan’s Law advocacy organization. Taking a position against a new sex offender monitoring program, here or anywhere, will not help me win any popularity contests. However, I think it’s important for us to take an objective look at this program’s potential impact on the community, its taxpayers and those it targets before jumping on the “Let’s get tough with sex offenders” bandwagon.  (more…)

02/28/14 11:00am

Efren Ramirez was struck and killed near this section of Flanders Road. (Credit: Paul Squire, file)

The Riverhead News-Review recently published an editorial about the sentencing of a defendant who was driving under the influence when he struck cyclist Steven Kane, killing him on Route 25 in Calverton. I agree with the editorial; a sentence of just six months in jail seems short of justice and unfair to the Kane family as well as society as a whole.

Jerry Bilinski

Jerry Bilinski

But where was the editorial outrage in March of 2013, when a Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department correction sergeant, Christopher Dean, was sentenced to no jail time — just probation — after being convicted of driving under the influence after striking and killing a pedestrian on Route 24. The victim , Efren Ramirez, was a Guatemalan immigrant who worked two jobs to support his wife and three small children. The News-Review reported on this story including the sentence handed down to Sergeant Dean., yet didn’t write any editorial at that time taking the justice system to task for such an outrageous sentence. Why not? Equally as disturbing about the no jail time plea agreement that Mr. Dean was offered by the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office , was the decision made by the sheriff’s department to not seek Sergeant Dean’s termination from employment. Sergeant Dean retained his law enforcement job as a correction sergeant. Think about the absurdity of this: Its possible that the defendant who ran down Mr. Kane and killed him while driving under the influence, who was sentenced to six months jail time, may now be under the supervision in the county jail by Sgt. Dean, who ran down, while under the influence, a pedestrian, Efren Ramirez, a husband and father of three children. I would never suggest that the News-Review places a higher value on the life of Mr. Kane than that of Efren Ramirez. However, it does bring up some important issues in terms of how the criminal justice system seems to treat some defendants and victims differently in terms of offering plea agreements. Let’s be honest, there are two justice systems here in Suffolk County, as well as America as a whole. Depending upon one’s race and social position in society, on a fairly routine basis, justice is dispensed very disparately. The two cases I discussed above illustrate our unequal system of justice. Now I am not some naive person who believes that our justice system treats every person equally. We all know the playing field is far from equal. However, I  think in the two cases discussed herein, something is really wrong. Why would the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office agree to a plea, without jail time, in the DUI case that led to the death of Efren Ramirez? It’s hard to take DA Thomas Spota seriously when he talks about cracking down on driving under the influence while he allows such an outrageous plea agreement to occur?  And why would the sheriff’s office not seek to terminate one of its correction officers who pleaded guilty to a DUI that also involved the defendant running over and killing a pedestrian? It raises questions about Sheriff Vincent Demarco’s public commitment aimed at targeting those driving under the influence? These are questions that I leave for the media and public to seek answers to. Jerry Bilinski is a case manager with a nonprofit group that advocates for incarcerated and mentally ill people. He lives in Riverhead.

08/26/13 8:00am

MICHAEL WHITE PHOTO | The new Suffolk County jail facility in Yaphank.

When the plan to build a new Suffolk County county jail was first proposed about 10 years ago, the political and economic landscape in the county, as well as the nation as a whole, was dramatically different from what we have today. Even back then, when Suffolk County was running budget surpluses, opponents of the new jail project made good arguments that it was ill-conceived, from both budgetary and policy standpoints.

In retrospect, they were right.

Suffolk County is now facing budget deficits that may exceed $200 million in 2014. At the same time, county officials are considering moving forward with Phase II of the new jail in Yaphank, at an expected cost of $100 million, totally paid for by Suffolk taxpayers without any state or federal subsidies. It is madness.

During the past several years, analyses and studies by criminal justice experts have highlighted our flawed approach to crime and punishment nationwide. Accounting for population, the rates of incarceration in the United States are some of the highest in the world. This high rate of incarceration is largely created by our decades long “War on Drugs” and a get-tough-on-repeat-offenders strategy that mandated prison sentences for defendants regardless of the severity of their actual crimes. The result for states and other municipalities has been soaring expenditures for corrections and other related costs of criminal justice systems. These policies have had a crippling effect on state and local county budgets.

However, recent studies on a national level have indicated that this trend is being reversed. Most states have gotten smart about the cost of incarceration and the need to reduce jail populations through less costly alternatives. Even here in New York State, the prison population has decreased during the past few years, with state prisons being closed and costs statewide being reduced. In contrast, Suffolk County has been moving in the opposite direction, with more and more jail cells being built or proposed and increased numbers of people being incarcerated. It has to stop as soon as possible, or it will send this county into a fate similar to that of Nassau County, or worse, Detroit.

Suffolk County Sheriff Vincent DeMarco has been pressing forward with a plan to reduce the inmate population through less costly alternatives to jail and diversions from incarceration that could eliminate the need for the $100 million Phase II of the new Yaphank jail. Suffolk County legislators and taxpayers should heed his call.

By expanding current jail diversion programs through the Probation Department and the courts, along with implementing new, cost-effective initiatives to divert low-level offenders from incarceration, we can significantly reduce the inmate population here in Suffolk County without jeopardizing public safety. These alternatives to incarceration programs can save taxpayers both the cost of expanding the Yaphank jail, as well as the annual increase in operating expenditures associated with running and staffing this new jail, which would include both hiring more correctional officers and increases in overtime pay.

Suffolk County needs to get in step with the rest of the nation and avoid the costs associated with high rates of incarceration.

Jerry Bilinski is a case manager with a non-profit group that advocates for incarcerated and mentally ill people. He lives in Riverhead.