Through his argument for an increase in the use of county inmate trusty work programs (“County should ramp up inmate work programs,” The Daily News, Aug. 2), Publisher Leonard Woolsey appears unaware of the voluntary nature of inmate participation in the county jail trusty work program, unaware of the problems identified in the county’s pretrial release programs and out of touch with Editor Michael A. Smith’s accurate judgment of those problems as “un-American and intolerable” (“One answer is clear — better to reform than litigate,” The Daily News, July 25).
Roughly 70 percent of the county jail inmate population (that’s around 700 people out of a jail population of around 1,000) is made up of pretrial detainees — people who have not been convicted of the crime for which they were arrested, but who can’t afford to make bail and thus remain in jail indefinitely. This is a population for whom the presumption of innocence has been disregarded, and for whom the odds of conviction or a guilty plea, whether guilty or innocent, increase daily while detained.
Woolsey’s concept that the pretrial detainee population should be “expected to earn (their) keep” and “serve (their) time...by doing something productive,” and his suggestion that any inmate might perceive detention as a “reprieve from the heat that includes three meals a day” represent an incredibly entitled perspective and an inappropriate rush to judgment that is bizarrely at odds with Sheriff Henry Trochesset’s assessment that “most of them would rather come out and do something rather than stay in their cell.”
The sheriff confirmed to me by phone that pretrial detainees are eligible to participate in the inmate trusty program, but made clear that no inmate can be forced to participate, and that only around 10 percent of the jail population would even be eligible to participate based on the risk they present, so expansion of the program would face logistical challenges. Woolsey seems to want to compound those logistical challenges with ethical challenges; he appears satisfied with a status quo that requires people to buy their freedom and suggests they should be made to work for free if they can’t.
Smith is correct that a two-tiered criminal justice system — one for the haves and one for the have-nots — is unacceptable in America. It is certainly better to focus on reforms to the pretrial detention problem as county leaders appear to be doing (this problem perpetuates cycles of poverty and contributes to outcomes like significant statewide demographic disparities between the incarcerated and the general population, and a statewide incarceration rate that stands out internationally), than to attempt to expand the inmate trusty program in the logistically and ethically fraught manner Woolsey suggests.