No One Is Watching: Jail in Upstate New York

This article, part of the Vera Institute’s In Our Backyard Stories series, documents the incarceration practices in the small upstate city of Amsterdam, New York. The city is located in Montgomery County, which had New York’s highest jail incarceration rate for almost 20 years in a row. The majority of those incarcerated in the county jail first passed through Amsterdam City Court, where from 1996 until 2015, Judge Howard Aison was the municipal court judge. Judge Aison had a policy of imposing the maximum fine in every case, and he readily admitted to sending people to jail when they did not pay the fines he imposed, regardless of their ability to pay:  “A lot of people went to jail for not paying fines.”

You can read the full text of this article here. Additionally, FFJC’s New York campaign is working to reform fines and fees practices statewide.

I sent a lot of people to jail, and I sent them because I believed they deserved to go to jail. […] I made a lot of money for the city. And how did I make that money? Fines. […] It’s expensive to have a police department. –Judge Howard Aison

Key Findings
  • In 2015, there were 42 people in Montgomery County jail for every 10,000 people in the county between the ages 15-64 (more than double the jail incarceration of NYC).
  • “Since 1991, the incarceration rate in New York City’s five boroughs dropped 60 percent, while the incarceration rate for rural upstate New York increased 66 percent.”
  • “Between January 1, 2009 and March 30, 2014, Judge Aison determined that he had collected higher combined fines and fees through the court system during his tenure than had any other upstate city… Judge Aison calculated the total revenue minus operating expenses for the Amsterdam City Court to be $1,451,596 for this period.”
  • Montgomery County’s and Judge Aison’s incarceration policies particularly impacted the County’s Latino population – roughly 42% of the County’s Latino population live in poverty compared with 20% of the White population.

The whole point of the thing is to make it miserable for Latino people to live here. A lot of the crime I see is petty stuff turning into big stuff. People get a ticket, they can’t pay, and then they go to jail because they can’t pay or because they don’t appear in court, and now they’re felons and lose their jobs. –Puerto Rican Amsterdam resident

Jack Norton, Vera Institute of Justice