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New York judge hears arguments in contempt charge against Broome County sheriff

JUST v Harder superspot

A state Supreme Court judge heard arguments in a case of civil and criminal contempt against Broome County’s sheriff last Friday.

The argument surrounds the county jail’s reduction in visitation hours, while a larger legal battle continues over visitation restrictions at the jail.

Activists with Justice and Unity for the Southern Tier, or JUST, brought the charges of contempt earlier this month. On Friday, they gathered outside the courthouse before the hearing.

“Today’s lawsuit should penalize the sheriff, financially penalize him, and the county, for defying the state Supreme Court,” Bill Martin, a founding member of JUST, said outside the courthouse.

In August, state Supreme Court Judge Oliver Blaise III ruled that the jail restore in-person visitation while a larger court battle over COVID-related visitation restrictions continues.

The jail has resumed in-person visitation, but hours are limited to 15 a week, compared to 40 hours before the onset of the pandemic. Activists argue that’s insufficient, and in direct defiance of the judge’s order.

“Sheriff Harder seems to forget the people of Broome County, they have real jobs, they’re working nine to five, they can’t just go in the middle of the afternoon, and see their loved one,” Jackson Hengsterman, who runs JUST’s volunteer visitation program, said.

During the hearing, Broome County attorney Robert Behnke argued that the new hours are based on a reduction in inmate population.

In an affidavit, jail administrator Mark Smolinsky said he calculated the weekly visitation hours using a formula that was approved by the state’s Commission of Correction. He said the formula involved multiplying the number of people in the jail by 15 percent, because only 15 percent of inmates had received visits in 2019 and early 2020, prior to the onset of the pandemic.

Joshua Cotter, who represents JUST in the suit, argued that calculation came “out of nowhere,” and was not backed up by data in the affidavit. He said the change in hours is directly related to the ongoing legal battle over visitation rights.

“They’ve had that visitation schedule in for years and years and years, and only now after they’re sued and have to provide people with their constitutional rights for visitation, do they now change it,” Cotter said.

Behnke and Harder did not respond to a request for comment on the hearing or the case. Judge Blaise is expected to make a decision this week or next.