In September, Ulster County executive Pat Ryan announced in the 2021 county budget a plan to reduce staffing at Ulster County Jail and increase funds for the Mobile Mental Health Team in an effort to reform the criminal justice system in the area.
The plan was presented through a series of forums held via Zoom, where the public weighed in on how police and criminal justice reform can be accomplished in the county. The forums concluded earlier this year, with the final plan presented publicly this week.
The effort marks a turning point for the area, as mental health concerns are being levied in a way they had not before. Ryan was interviewed back in November about the plan, which is expected to be certified as a part of the legislation established per Governor Andrew Cuomo’s executive order 203 on police reform.
“We’re recognizing that we can’t keep doing things the way they were,” he said. “When I when I came into office a little over a year ago, this was one of the first areas I looked at.”
The downsizing in jail staff will reflect the declining inmate population, which in turn allows for individuals suffering from mental health issues to get the care they need. To this end, $900,000 in funding will be allotted to Mobile Mental Health and the hiring of a social worker to answer mental health-related 911 calls.
Ulster County Sheriff Juan Figueroa partnered with the County Executive to work out the details of the plan.
“Most of these folks that have these mental health issues aren’t criminals, and they shouldn’t be treated as criminals,” he said. “They don’t belong in the county jail.”
Having worked in law enforcement since the 1980s, Figueroa sees this plan as a long time coming.
“When I was a young trooper, the state shut down all the state-run psychiatric centers, and there was a shift of these this particular large population away from long term care.” he said. “Since then, law enforcement has found themselves dealing with these issues along with our local hospitals, and with the opioid epidemic, which is a public health crisis, it kind of made things worse.”
Another area the county is willing to explore is dealing with 911 calls related to individuals with disabilities, particularly those with autism spectrum disorder.
“We have to respond with care and not with incarceration,” said County Executive Ryan. “That means both having more mental health professionals ready, but it also means better training and equipping law enforcement to understand the full array of challenges of people that they’re encountering.”
Sheriff Figueroa also agreed that more training is key to improving the quality of policing of all populations.
“It’s designed to help the first responders with skills and connections that they need with the community to engage these folks in a safe and effective way,” he said. “We need to know who to link family members to in regards to local services, resources and support.”