ITHACA, NY – When a person ends up in jail, much of society views that as a just punishment for a crime. Ithaca City Court Judge Scott Miller offered a more compassionate take on the incarcerated during a meeting of the Tompkins Jail Study Committee on Thursday.

“Sometimes, in the middle of the night when we receive a call, and the officer has merely arrested the person on petit larceny, shoplifting — $20 item, $50 item — and the officer says, ‘Well judge, I also need to let you know that John Smith or Jane Joe has informed me that they shot up 20 bags of heroin in the last 12 hours.’ This is not a rare occurrence,” Miller said.

Miller explained that these arrestees are often homeless, and there is nowhere safe to release them to.

“I have remanded individuals in the past and then one or two weeks later, when that individual is no longer going through intensive withdrawal and hasn’t used obviously in one or two weeks… the charges are so minor, there might some kind of plea agreement, we release that person on Friday… one or two of those individuals have been dead by Saturday from going back to using heroin,” Miller said.

The newly-formed Jail Study Committee is charged with hiring the consultant that will help guide how the County deals with the ongoing issue of its overcrowded jail. Miller urged the committee to ensure that the consultant understood the values of the Ithaca and Tompkins community — treatment, rehabilitation and second chances.

Miller said he had done research into progressive models on the issue but had not found many. One option he urged the committee to consider is one that’s recently been adopted in a Massachusetts jail, where a drug rehabilitation treatment program is part of the jail.

“We need treatment to start for people that have to be remanded to jail. They’re a danger to the community, they’re a danger to themselves,” Miller said. “They’re a flight risk because they’re going to die in a day or two if Judge Wallace or I leave them out on the street.”

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The other perspective

Miller’s compassionate picture of jail inmates didn’t go unchallenged. Legislator Mike Sigler, who is not on the committee but attended the meeting out of interest, asked a few followup questions. First, Sigler asked Miller how many people that came before him were “in crisis” and would benefit more from treatment or other alternatives to incarceration.

“60 to 80 percent, if not 90 percent,” was Miller’s response.

He estimated that at least 60 percent of people came before him for minor offenses, such as shoplifting, disorderly conduct, criminal mischief or open containers. Many of those people clearly need substance abuse treatment, and Miller argued that sticking them in jail for three to four weeks waiting on a plea bargain was not the best solution for the individual or the community.

Later, Sigler said that he supported the idea of a treatment program as a unit of the jail, both on a practical level and from a “marketing standpoint,” as it would appease people who are concerned about law and order more than a separate facility.

“You’ve gotta hit the law and order aspect of it, you can’t just set this up outside the jail. People are there because they did something wrong, too. If you want to appease both sides — they did something that got them in front of a judge,” Sigler said.

He got some pushback from Legislator Martha Robertson, who argued that for many who are incarcerated, their crimes are primarily crimes of self-harm.

“Tell that to the guy whose car was stolen. I’m saying, there is a law and order aspect to it,” Sigler replied. “From a marketing standpoint, too, you’re appeasing a lot of people with that.”

Jail Captain Ray Bunce made a similar argument:

“I implore the group here to remember the victims,” Bunce said. “The people that are <in jail> — we’ve talked about mental health, we’ve talked about drugs — the reasons they’re there, but let’s remember that they’re there because there was a crime committed that violated a law, that caused them to get arrested by a police officer and put before a judge, who put them in jail. There’s probably a victim associated with that as well,” Bunce said.

“That’s the way the government is made up, the way the constitution was put out there — that’s your payback to the victims, to the community, however you want to look at it. Just keep that in mind.”

Michael Smith

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