Note: This is a letter to the editor from Tompkins County Legislator Rich John. It was NOT written by the Ithaca Voice … click here to submit community announcements directly to The Voice, or contact Managing Editor Jolene Almendarez at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Contested elections are a good thing, including in the District that I currently represent. I believe it is essential that voters have choices. Bring on the competition. But I have serious concerns about a central issue my opponent is using to campaign on, a purported expansion of the Tompkins County Jail. These claims are not true.
In response to demands last year by the New York State Commission of Correction, the Tompkins County Legislature undertook a review of our Jail operations and the criminal justice system that surrounds the Jail. In particular, the Commission required an answer as to how the County was going to deal with long term overcrowding. As a result, the Legislature formed the Jail Study Committee to figure out how we could reduce the inmate population, hoping to improve outcomes for people in the system and reduce recidivism long-term. I am the Chair of that Committee and our work is underway
We want and need an engaged public and need to hear from the community on this important topic. However, misinformation is not helpful. My opponent has tirelessly indicated opposition to “the proposed jail expansion,” stated a position of being “unequivocally not for the jail expansion,” and offered that “Tompkins County may not be able to stop the jail expansion.” Last week, my opponent went further, using a community not-for-profit where they are employed, the Multicultural Resource Center, to organize people to write letters to the Tompkins County Legislature objecting to the “proposed jail expansion.” In the background information handed out to letter writers includes the following:
We oppose jail expansion because… Expansion is financially irresponsible. With an estimated cost of $18-22 million, this new facility would expand the county’s debt and undercut the county’s own investments in alternatives to incarceration.
This literature claims there is a proposal to expand the jail, and that we even have a price tag for it. These statements are false. There is no “new facility.” There are no costs. There is no building plan. We are emphatically not secretly working to build a big expensive jail, as some have said. Why would someone mislead people that way?
At our first meeting of the Jail Study Committee I explained the limited scope of our review and have repeated it often over the months. We have started from the premise that building more beds in our Jail should be the last option. We need to first look at the alternative programs, both that are in place and may be possible. My opponent has attended several of those meetings.
Members of the public can (and do) say whatever they want during public comment at our meetings. We welcome their input at these meetings, online, and through phone conversations and email. While opinions are welcome, if someone makes a factually incorrect statement, it is our responsibility as legislators to correct the misinformation.
Similarly, it is the responsibility of a candidate for the Legislature to know the facts and present them honestly.
The Jail Study Committee has received and studied a large amount of information about the many programs operating within and outside our Jail. We have had some great presentations and discussions about possible directions, and none of them have suggested expanding our Jail beds. The County retained a consultant, CGR, to examine the many programs we have in place to help people return to the community successfully. CGR’s report will be completed soon.
I acknowledge that a politician running for office may characterize issues as they wish. Perhaps “Stop the Jail Expansion” makes a good bumper sticker. It is an easy slogan on a complicated subject, and has been effective in rallying people who are rightly concerned about the issue. But spreading misinformation does not promote a useful public dialogue or help us come to the best possible decision as a community. And, of course, the reasons are obvious why a community not-for-profit organization which receives local public funding should not make misleading statements or provide campaign support to a political candidate-employee. Trust is hard earned and easily spent.
I understand that this is an important issue that many are passionate about. I am passionate about it as well. Thanks to our alternatives to incarceration we have in place, we have kept jail population remarkably low – among the lowest per capita in the state and about a third of the national average, but I believe we can always do better. How we address criminal justice, including how we run our Jail is a reflection of our community values.
Of course, we want and need an engaged public and we read all letters received. I only wish that the people being asked to write these letters by my opponent were provided with an accurate picture of what we are actually doing.
Featured image: Legislator Rich John listens during discussions of raising the tobacco purchase age at a Legislature meeting in May. Kelsey O’Connor/Ithaca Voice