ITHACA, N.Y. — A recently released report about the Tompkins County Jail gives a series of recommendations for how to reduce local recidivism rates.

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The report, set to be discussed by the Tompkins County Legislature on Tuesday night, details the obstacles facing former inmates and suggests how local government agencies may help inmates overcome them — even though more than 80 percent of inmates are in the Tompkins County Jail for under a month.

The report was written by the “Reentry Subcommittee,” whose members include Ithaca City Court Judge Scott Miller; defense attorney Jason Leifer; Capt. Raymond Bunce of the sheriff’s office; Patricia Carey, commissioner of the Department of Social Services; and other local officials.

(The subcommittee was chaired by Patricia Buechel, director of probation, and Deborah Dietrich, director of Opportunities, Alternatives and Resources.)

Below are four of the obstacles for inmates identified by the report, followed by the way in which the report recommends local officials tackle each obstacle:

1 — Housing: Increase allowances of former inmates

About 50 percent of inmates being released from jail did not know where they would be living — or planned on couch-surfing — upon their release, according to the subcommittee’s research.

“Securing housing is one of the most immediate challenges and pressing need for many who are released from the Tompkins County Jail,” the report states.

“Even if our clients manage to find housing, most do not have enough money to pay for a security deposit.”

As a result, the committee recommends an increase in what’s called the “Safety Net Housing allowance” — which gives a government stipend for former inmates to afford housing. The allowance is currently $400 per month, but the committee says that’s not high enough.

“The current allotment only manages to secure a room in substandard housing located in the rural townships with limited transportation,” the report says.

“Supportive housing has proven itself a cost effective strategy to end homelessness, but the supply of units here in Tompkins County is extremely limited.”

2 — Employment: Have gov. agencies hire former convicts

Unsurprisingly, the report identifies high barriers to employment for former inmates. What may be more surprising is that these barriers are higher for former inmates in the private sector than it is for those in the public one.

“There appears to be an internal screening process with both the City of Ithaca and Tompkins County Personnel departments and the presence of a conviction does not automatically eliminate the applying individual from prospective employment,” the report states.

“However, in the private sector discrimination more routinely hinders employment opportunities.”

The report thus recommends that Tompkins County and the City of Ithaca governments hire “ex-offenders … who meet job requirements, thereby setting an example for local private sector employers.”

Among some of the report’s other recommendations to reduce barriers to employment for released offenders:

A) Banning the box, an idea explored further in this Ithaca Voice story;
B) Starting “a mentoring and apprenticeship program” for youth being released from the Tompkins County Jail;
C) Creating trainings — unspecified in their nature and scope in the report — to “meet the needs of specific employers who are willing and interested in hiring those that successfully complete targeted training.”
D) Identifying training opportunities for inmates that can be given to them as they’re being released from jail.

3 — Transportation: Get a van, provide rides for released individuals

Another one of the obstacles detailed by the subcommittee report pertains to transportation.

The “Safety Net” funding for single individuals only provides housing for inmates in the towns of Groton and Enfield. But inbound and outbound public transit to these townships ends before 6 p.m., making it difficult for the former inmates seeking employment in the city of Ithaca, according to the report.

“Many of those recently released who find employment work in the service sector with less traditional hours including early mornings and evenings and cannot use the public transit system,” the report says.

As a result, the report recommends the institution of van service for rural areas where “many released from the jail are housed together.”

Additionally, the report notes that OAR is thinking about starting a new program with local churches that would “provide rides from the jail to downtown upon an individual’s release from the Tompkins County Jail.”

The program would also give former inmates rides to the Department of Social Services, the Probation Department or for other “basic personal care items” as the former inmate might need.

4 — Programming: Offer new courses in jail, on topics ranging from finances to addiction recovery

The report also says there is not enough space within the jail to offer programming and educational courses.

“Due to the fluidity of the Tompkins County Jail population, the severe programming space constraints and the expense of extra correctional officers to monitor programming designed to assist inmates with a range of skills and coping mechanisms is severely limited,” the report says.

“The (committee) recommends that the existing space be reviewed and that other options for space be explored,….This could be in the form of adding space in the existing jail or examining off site locations, such as the Day Reporting program, as a possible venue to inmate programming.”

Among the recommendations on this front:

A) Downloading educational courses on jail computers;
B) Offering training and information sessions for those who haven’t been sentenced;
C) Giving a 20-hour course in “Alternatives to Violence” that could help former inmates qualify for housing;
D) Increasing the number of available “12 Step” programs for substance abuse recovery at the jail;
E) Offering a “MoneyWise” course from Alternative Federal Credit Union on money management.

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Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.