Note: This is a letter to the editor from Tompkins County Legislator Candidate Reed Steberger. 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 jalmendarez@ithacavoice.com.

The Context of the Tompkins County Jail Study

In July 2016, the New York State Commission on Corrections announced its plans to revoke a variance that has allowed Tompkins County to double-bunk inmates, rooming more people in fewer rooms in order to avoid either sending inmates to jails outside of the county, or constructing a larger jail. New York State’s suggested alternative to the variance, in the words of the Tompkins County Administrator in a July 2016 press release, was a “45-bed addition to the Jail, [which] would likely cost $10-$12 million. At that price, county property taxes would increase by $1.2-$1.4 million, or as much as 3 percent, to cover annual debt payments and the cost of new staff.”

Not only was the cost of the State’s suggestion exceedingly high, but it was out of step with Tompkins County’s progressive efforts. The county has long utilized a broad range of alternatives to incarceration (ATI’s), programs that avoid the often ineffective and dubiously moral use of incarceration to address low level offenses, crimes of poverty, drug addiction, and mental health.

Thus, in August 2016, the Jail Study Committee was formed. The committee chose a consulting firm specializing in ATI/jail expansion assessments, and work began to answer the specific question, “Can we reduce our jail population using alternatives to incarceration?”

(You can find jail study committee meeting notes, organized by month, here.)

Following its charge, the study conducted extensive community interviews with mental health professionals, public health experts, corrections officers, county agency and departments heads, and more. Critically, the study interviewed members of our community who are currently or were formerly incarcerated, whose experiences navigating the system provide unmatched expertise in analyzing alternatives.

This month, the Jail Study Committee released its report, having reached a welcome conclusion: No jail expansion is needed. Through alternatives to incarceration, the population can remain low enough to reduce board-outs to a minimum and avoid adding more beds. You can read the executive summary here, and the full study here. The summary outlines the study’s major conclusions and makes recommendations in the following areas: Inmate Intake Reduction, Jail Population Reduction, Improvements Within the Jail, Changes to the Criminal Justice System, Improved Data Tracking, Community Programs and Engagement, and Criminal Justice Leadership.

The executive summary is a readable ten pages, and, in my opinion, expresses a progressive, community-focused path forward that will shrink the footprint of local incarceration.

How We Got Here: The Paradigm Shift

While the scope of the Jail Study itself was limited — can we reduce our jail population using ATIs — a community conversation emerged around a far more fundamental question: How does our government respect and uphold the inherent dignity, freedom and rights of our neighbors, family members, coworkers and friends? Is incarceration, with a long legacy traceable through Jim Crow Laws and slavery, the mechanism our community will use to address matters of poverty, public health and mental health? How do we ensure that race isn’t the determining factor for incarceration in our community? And moreover, how do we align our approach to these issues with the progressive values that our community is proud of?

This fundamental conversation is in the context of over a decade of community-led efforts to tirelessly push the public and our government to engage with an urgency matching the scope of the challenge.

Efforts are wide ranging, including projects like Understand to Overcome (U2O), United Against Hate, the Talking Circles on Race and Racism, the Community Read of Chaos or Community, the Building Bridges Initiative, as well the Ultimate ReEntry Opportunity Initiative, Opportunities Alternatives and Resources (OAR), and CCE ReEntry. More recently, local chapters of national groups like Black Lives Matter and Showing Up for Racial Justice have emerged, as well as the massive, 30+ organization coalition, The New Jim Crow Community Read, which have continued the push. Taken together, these projects have engaged literally thousands of residents.

The result of these community efforts is a decisive cultural shift in support of socially just solutions to community problems and away from systems like mass incarceration. It is now nearly common sense that incarceration is not an effective or equitable tool for the suite of social problems it attempts to address.

But beyond common sense, there have been tangible outcomes. In a June 2017 Jail Study Committee Meeting, Captain Ray Bunce, who supervises the Tompkins County Jail, was asked to explain why our jail population is the lowest it’s been in years. His answer was clear. First, there is public scrutiny of every aspect of the process. Second, our alternatives to incarceration are working.

We must remember what we know for sure: Public engagement is absolutely essential in bringing about the positive changes we need, and in sustaining the cultural shift we have built over the past 10 years and more. I encourage members of the public to continue attending the Jail Study and Public Safety Committee meetings. I encourage the public to demand better, more frequent and more easily accessible information about the progress we are making towards our government’s stated goals.

I also encourage the public to follow the Jail Study and Public Safety committee’s deliberations in the following areas:

  • Will public forums be held at accessible times for community members, per the consulting firms’ recommendation? Will forums be be held in partnership with trusted community organizations, ensuring all members of the public feel welcome?
  • How will the committee plan to synchronize efforts with existing county efforts to address systemic issues of racism, affordable housing, transportation, and employment?
  • If the county supports a paid position to implement the study’s recommendations, what decision making voice in hiring will community members directly impacted by incarceration have?

I’m excited to see this work go forward and I am encouraged by the content of the study.

The Work Still to Come

Culture shift is not without its challenges. For those of us who are white and middle class (myself included), conversations about incarceration often evoke feelings of guilt and prompt behaviors of defensive outlash. For those who have lived the experience of incarceration, justified frustration often bursts out at the incremental nature of change and the minimization or misunderstanding of the deep trauma incarceration produces. The conversation can become a battle, over tone, decorum, and nitpicking the complex constellation of facts (ie. The recent debate: Is there or isn’t there a proposed jail expansion?).

Yet this is how the conversation must take place. To play a public role is to open yourself to ad hominem character attack, not only from political opponents but from allies who on any other day of the week are your biggest champions. I’ve facilitated meetings that have brought together respected public employees, impacted community members, community advocates with decades of successful work behind them, all united behind a vision of challenging our system of incarceration — and there too, emotions run high.

At the end of the day, those who channel this energy will play a part in building an inclusive public process where even those who fundamentally disagree with each other can make their essential contributions to the process of change. I chose this work for myself long before I decided to run for office, and it’s the role any candidate or elected official should be prepared to take on.

Drawing inspiration from the words of Frederick Douglass, an outspoken recipient of criticism in his own day, we have identified the crops we wish to sow, but we have yet to plow the ground. We hope for rain to water our soil, but we must accept the thunder and lightening that comes with it. The difficult work continues.

If you want to talk about your vision for public safety, the future of incarceration in Tompkins County, and alternatives to incarceration, please feel free to reach out — even if you’re coming in with thunder and lightning.

Featured image: Reed Steberger/Courtesy Photo

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.