ITHACA, NY – Tompkins County has fought for over a decade to handle its criminal justice system in a more progressive way — and that battle is far from over.

In 2014, after months of debate and protests, the Tompkins County Legislature authorized up to $910,000 to expand the Tompkins County Jail, adding seven new beds and an enclosed outdoor recreation area to the facility.

[su_spoiler title=”Click here for a refresher on the Jail Expansion issue” icon=”chevron-circle”]The jail expansion‘s purpose was, in part, to reduce the number of inmates that had to be boarded out when there was no room. Boarding out is expensive — it cost the county about $500,000 from 2012 – 2013.

The project faced opponents on both practical and ideological grounds. Some said that the project was simply too expensive for what it offered, and argued that it doesn’t necessarily solve the boarding out problem because the beds could only be used for male inmates.

Others, namely the activist group Stop the Tompkins County Jail Expansion Coalition, felt that the county should work harder on ATI (Alternatives to Incarceration) programs. They also argued that expanding the jail would create would necessarily lead to a higher number of people being incarcerated.[/su_spoiler]

Due to state regulations, however, another expansion of the jail may be inevitable.

During this week’s meeting of the Tompkins County Legislature, Chairperson Mike Lane gave a report on a meeting with the New York State’s Corrections Commission.

Lane explained that the Tompkins Jail has variances that routinely need to be approved by the state. Namely, there are 18 bunked beds in rooms that are too small. According to state regulations, there is a certain amount of square footage per inmate in a room that needs to be met.

Lane added that the Tompkins Jail is one of two jails in the state to use such variances. Basically, the State doesn’t like variances.

Reducing jail population

In order to avoid having to expand its jail again, Tompkins has aimed to reduce its jail population. The county has instituted a number of ATI programs. Most recently, the county approved a $100,000 jail re-entry program to help inmates reintegrate into society.

“This just really increases the pressure to try and make those programs work,” said Legislator Martha Robertson. “[The Corrections Commission] doesn’t necessarily think our programs will fail, but they kind of feel like, ‘Eh, look, sooner or later you’re going to have to build a bigger jail, so get on with it.’”

County Administrator Joe Mareane said the Commission was impressed with the work the county had done so far. It’s expected that the Commission will give the county another six-month approval of the variance.

However, if it can’t be shown that the county’s ATI programs are going to make a substantial dent in the jail population, future variance requests may not go as smoothly. The ATI programs are going to have to continue proving their worth for some time to come.

“They made it clear the next time we ask for a variance, which is right around the corner, they’re going to want to see metrics and milestones,” said County Administrator Joe Mareane. “What’s our expectations on reductions and when do we think those might occur? Then they’ll hold us accountable, they’ll watch us over time to see how we’re doing on those metrics.”

“We’re not typical”

In a phone interview with The Voice, Robertson said that Tompkins has been very successful at keeping its jail population stable while others continue to grow.

“The typical answer is more cells,” Robertson said. “Well, we’re not typical.” She highlighted reforms that Tompkins has instituted to help the jail population problem. Some date back to the late 1990s, like the Tompkins drug court, and there are more recent programs as well, like the re-entry program and a push to encourage magistrate judges to set bail at the amount that the OAR bail fund can cover it.

If the County were to lose its variances on the bunk-beds, they would be unable to use them. This might put them right back in the same place they were in 2014 — paying a lot of money to board out inmates.

It might also lead to pressure to get rid of the ATI programs. “Then you’ve not only wasted money, but you’re actively making life worse for people in the criminal justice system,” Robertson said.

(Featured photo: on Flickr)

Michael Smith

Michael Smith reports on politics and local news for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached via email at, by cell at (607) 229-0885, or via Google Voice at (518) 650-3639.