ITHACA, N.Y. — As a study of the Tompkins County Jail pushes ahead, many community members have made it clear they are not in favor of an expansion. Instead, many advocated for more services in the community to address issues such as substance abuse and mental health.

The Jail Study Committee, charged with analyzing the jail population and recommending solutions, held a special informational meeting Thursday to update the public on the status of the study and also hear feedback.

It was standing room only in Tompkins County Legislative Chambers during the meeting. The committee and public heard a short presentation by CGR, a consulting organization based out of Rochester, contracted to study the county’s current and projected jail population. CGR is also factoring the effectiveness of alternatives to incarceration programs in its research.

Tompkins County is facing pressure from the New York State Commission of Correction to reduce its jail population or expand the jail. This summer, the commission revoked a variance that allowed Tompkins County Jail to have 18 extra beds. The variance has been reinstated twice with the understanding that the county is actively working to address overcapacity issues.

Related: Tompkins jail gets more time (again) to manage jail population

Paula Ioanide, associate professor in the Center for the Study of Culture, Race and Ethnicity, said the variance being pulled is a crisis for the community, but can also be viewed as a moment of opportunity. Ioanide has extensively studied mass incarceration.

“The opportunity here is for Tompkins County to actually be a kind of a path-breaking leader in the nation and in New York State to essentially continue what it’s been doing. … which is the path of actually funding, implementing and running alternatives to incarceration programs that essentially leave the footprint of incarceration smaller, in our vision as community members shrink it,” Ioanide said.

Rather than punishing and containing social problems like poverty, mental health and substance abuse and letting people cycle through jail, Ioanide said, research has shown “punitive policies don’t work. In other words, containing people back into jail only disrupts their cycles and their opportunities for essentially reintegrating back into the community in sustainable and healthful ways.”

What works is to address the root cause of the problem, Ioanide said.

Don Pryor and Paul Bishop, of CGR, said in the presentation their goals are 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. The consulting firm is also analyzing the effects of Alternatives to Incarceration programs.

Keep updated on the jail study and provide feedback at www.cgr.org/TompkinsCrimJust.

Nearly all 20 residents who spoke up at the meeting opposed any expansion of the Tompkins County Jail. Instead, most community members echoed that the county should focus on providing more services.

Local resident Ruth Yarrow, who volunteers to drive families of people who are incarcerated to the jail for Opportunities, Alternatives and Resources, said she hears that families are not concerned about overcrowding, but want more programs.

“Programs for drug addiction, for mental health, for training people for jobs when they get out, all the kinds of alternatives that we’re talking about,” Yarrow said.

Yarrow also asked the presenters if they have a good way of reaching important stakeholders, like families of people incarcerated.

Edwin Santiago, of Freeville, said he was formerly incarcerated and echoed the need for more services to help people stay out of jail.

“Jail wasn’t a solution. It was never the solution. I changed out here with people helping me,” Santiago said.

Kelsey O'Connor

Kelsey O'Connor is the managing editor for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact her at koconnor@ithacavoice.com and follow her on Twitter @bykelseyoconnor.