Ithaca, N.Y. — Tompkins County has implemented several new programs to reduce its jail population.
A report by a team appointed by the county legislature found that — by seeking alternatives to incarceration when processing inmates — the local jail could safely reduce overcrowding at the jail.
In late 2013, the decision to add seven beds to the jail led to a countywide debate on whether the county should have instead be seeking more alternatives to incarceration.
Though the expansion was approved, the team’s report concluded that the implementation of alternatives to incarceration are “critically important” and could reduce the jail population.
According to Tompkins County Legislator Brian Robison, since the board conducted the report, the Tompkins County Jail has seen a reduction in the inmate population. (Specific numbers aren’t yet available, Roberson said; The Voice will provide them when they are.)
Here’s a look at five of the new alternatives to incarceration programs, implemented in the past 6 months or being implemented now:
1 — Legal counsel at arraignment
Tompkins County is among the first counties in New York State to institute a countywide requirement that attorneys be present at defendants’ initial arraignment. This program is funded by a state grant.
2 — Presuming counsel prevents delays
This idea is to presume that defendants are eligible for assignment of legal counsel.
Doing so cuts out wasted time and money otherwise spent determining if someone is eligible, according to the report.
3 — A “defender based advocacy pilot program”
This program — funded by a state grant — helps defense lawyers “by providing an in‐depth review of the individual’s life circumstances and potential restorative measures.”
4 — Mental health meetings without an appointment
The County Mental Health Department now has a policy to allow individuals to receive mental health services without an appointment. This change of policy hopes to reduce the number of those with acute mental health issues being arrested.
5 — Individualized plans to prevent recidivism
The sheriff’s office will participate in a program to craft “appropriate interventions and formulate jurisdiction‐specific, individualized offender re‐entry plans to reduce recidivism.”
During a Sept. 16 meeting, the Tompkins County Legislature officially accepted the report.
Conducted by a legislature-appointed group called the Criminal Justice/Alternatives to Incarceration Board, the writers of the report consisted of 12 members from various parts of the Tompkins County community: criminal justice professionals, members of the judiciary, human service practitioners, and community members.
One of the report’s findings is that the jail was overcrowded in part because “over 200 un-sentenced inmates were in jail for more than 30 days in 2013,” according to the report.
Robison also said the crowding was in part due to inmates serving weekend sentences.
“We were finding that weekenders were clogging up the jail for a matter of days every week and it forced the Jail to board people out to accommodate those numbers” Robison said.
The county is also currently implementing a program that will keep weekend inmates out of jail. “Weekenders” will be asked to perform community service type programs instead of being in a jail cell.