Michaud: Suffolk sheriff is trying to break criminal justice cycle

Suffolk County Sheriff Vincent DeMarco stands in one Suffolk County Sheriff Vincent DeMarco stands in one of the four pods at the new Suffolk County Correctional Facility in Yaphank. (March 22, 2013) Photo Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

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Anne Michaud Portrait of Newsday editorial board member Anne Michaud

Anne Michaud is the interactive editor for Newsday Opinion. She has written about politics, government, education and transportation ...

Suffolk County Sheriff Vincent DeMarco is an unusual kind of sheriff. What law enforcement chief doesn't want a bigger jail? But he is doing all he can not to build.

On a recent Thursday morning, DeMarco eviscerated an 82-page report by the Suffolk County Probation Department that said the department is doing a great job of clearing the jail of nonviolent, low-level offenders, and preventing them from returning. DeMarco spoke to the county legislature's Public Safety Committee and made enough of an impression that it appears the legislature will vote on Sept. 14 to have an outside consultant come in to check the Probation Department's math.

That's important, because unless the sheriff can prove that he can move people out of jail and reduce crowded conditions, the state is going to force him to build space for 440 more beds at a cost of $100 million, even as Suffolk faces a $250 million budget deficit.

In an interview, DeMarco said of the Probation Department, "These guys go to conferences around the state and B.S. everybody. They tell everybody how effective their programs are." He went on to say, "But it's outdated and incomplete data. I like these people; I work with them every day. It's not personal."

You have to hand it to him, that's blunt. That's because overstating the effectiveness of the probation system makes it harder to get low-level criminals into the alternative programs that could have a better chance of keeping them from returning to jail down the line.

It's an excellent position for a Conservative Party sheriff to take during a re-election campaign: Save the county $100 million. But DeMarco has been cross-endorsed by every major and minor party in the county, and he probably doesn't have much to fear electorally from his opponent, Sam Barreto, a Suffolk canine unit police officer who is challenging him in the primary for the Republican line.

Still, it's remarkable that DeMarco's fiscal conservatism is marching him directly toward liberal criminal justice policies. He likes to tell a story about the first time Bob DeSena asked for a meeting. DeSena is a former New York City high school teacher and the founder of Council for Unity, which has brought together rival black, white and Latino gang members to work out their differences at the Suffolk County jail in Riverhead. DeMarco told his secretary to interrupt the DeSena meeting after 10 minutes.

"I thought he was nuts," DeMarco said.

But in the years since, the sheriff has spearheaded such life-changing programs for "justice involved" young people -- teens who are facing jail time and perhaps a life of cycling through the criminal justice system, unless someone helps them.

DeMarco's youth re-entry task force in Suffolk, and the youth tier initiative at the jail, have just won recognition from the National Association of Counties. The sheriff has embraced the counseling and housing services of Hope House Ministries in Port Jefferson and Timothy Hill Children's Ranch in Riverhead.

Soon, with the sheriff's support, District Court Judge Fernando Camacho will open a youth court -- similar to the veterans, drug and mental health courts in Suffolk County -- to make sure teenagers have every opportunity to turn their lives around.

Camacho spoke recently to a gathering of representatives from Suffolk County youth agencies. In his 30 years as a judge, he said, he's seen the same types of problems plaguing kids who show up in the criminal justice system at 16 or 17: an absent father, an addicted mother, a string of foster homes, learning issues, fighting in school, drug use.

"That person is angry, really angry," Camacho said. "If you take that 16- or 17-year-old and lock them up for three years, you're going to have one angry 20-year-old coming back into your community."

For reasons of mercy or money -- who cares which? -- Suffolk is trying to end that cycle.

Anne Michaud is the interactive editor for Newsday Opinion.

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