ITHACA, N.Y. — The firm that has been analyzing Tompkins County’s jail population is expected to release its final report this week.
Since September, Tompkins County has been examining ways to lower the jail population. To do so, the county contracted an organization to study the issue and has heard from the community about initiatives involving alternatives to incarceration, bail reform and the need for services related to addiction and mental health.
Last summer, the New York State Commission of Correction revoked a variance that allowed the jail to operate with 18 extra beds. The commission revoked the variance, saying an overcrowded jail presents risks to inmate safety and well-being. The variance was extended, but the revocation put pressure on Tompkins County to find ways to reduce its jail population or expand the jail. To address the issue, Tompkins County Legislature formed a Jail Study Committee and hired a consulting organization, CGR, to study the county’s current and project jail population.
The jail’s variance was recently renewed again, and the county will have to re-apply around mid-August, according to Capt. Ray Bunce of the Tompkins County Jail.
Legislator Rich John, who chairs the Jail Study Committee, said though having the variance revoked was “painful,” it forced the county to look closely at the jail and the issues that surround it.
“I think it will lead us to end up with a much better system,” John said.
At the January meeting, Don Pryor and Paul Bishop of CGR, said their goal with the study is to reduce the average daily census at the jail, eliminate costly board-out placements and if an expanded or new jail is needed, develop a cost-effective recommendation.
Many people in the community have voiced opposition to any expansion of the Tompkins County Jail. At past Jail Study Committee meetings, members of the public urged the county to make more services available in the community to address issues such as substance abuse and mental health. Though jail expansion has been a major concern among the public since the study began, John said the committee has not been looking at building a bigger jail. He said it’s possible the upcoming report could say to expand the jail, but that it has not been discussed yet.
The Jail Study Committee has held monthly public meetings since September, where members of the community and local organizations have discussed a wide range of issues that add to the number of people in jail — such as mental health, substance abuse, the need and planned opening of a detox facility, as well as criminal justice issues like releasing more people on their own recognizance and having an attorney present at first arraignment.
“How we run our jail is a reflection of our community values,” John said. “I see that over and over again. If you look at who we’re putting in jail … they tell us a lot about how we deal with people as a community.”
For most people in the jail, John said, there are drivers that got them there, like homelessness, substance abuse or mental health issues. He highlighted a number of local organizations and programs that help people return to the community from jail, or keep people out of jail. For example, a mobile mental health crisis team has been established to deescalate situations and connect people with services, with the goal to reduce unnecessary hospitalizations, legal involvement or incarceration. To help people reentering the community, Opportunities, Alternatives and Resources is opening Endeavor House to help people transition back into the community.
Through all of the Jail Study Committee meetings, John said he has been impressed by value and credentials and experience of people in our community working to try to keep people out of jail, and the ones who are there, trying to keep them out of jail.”
Since September, the jail population has remained low. John said the Jail Study Committee is not entirely sure why the population has been lower, but the recent focus on alternatives to incarceration and reducing the population could be a factor, he said.
John said CGR’s report will be released before the committee’s next meeting July 20. He said the report will be the beginning of more community discussion about the jail and how to reduce population. Any solution or action in the future will take a lot of thought, he said.
Read minutes from past meetings and see documents on the Tompkins County Criminal Justice and Jail Assessment Project website.