ITHACA, N.Y. — A months-long study of the Tompkins County Jail population has found there is no need to build a bigger facility or expand the current jail.
Since Fall 2016, Rochester-based Center for Governmental Research has been studying the Tompkins County Jail population. CGR has looked at alternatives to incarceration and other criminal justice programs, policies and practices to see how they impact the current and projected jail population.
For years, the jail population has exceeded its official capacity, even with a variance from the state allowing 18 extra beds. Last summer, the New York State Commission of Correction revoked the jail’s variance, which put pressure on Tompkins County to find ways to reduce its jail population or expand the jail. Even without a possible revocation of the variance looming, boarding out inmates to other jails regularly is costly for the county.
To address the issue, Tompkins County Legislature formed a Jail Study Committee and hired CGR.
The jail recently expanded in 2016 from 75 to 82 beds, but since 2008, the jail’s census has averaged at least 80 inmates per day. However, the population of the jail has remained lower since September 2016. As of Wednesday, the jail population was 71 inmates with three people boarded out, Capt. Ray Bunce of the Tompkins County Jail said. The average daily population since September is 72 inmates per day, Bunce said.
If recommendations are put in place, CGR projects the jail population could be reduced to as low as 46 beds per night and no more than 54 by 2020. The population would be well below the capacity of the jail even without the variance.
On Friday, CGR released a full 200-page report with the results of its study.
The report’s core conclusion is that there is no need to build a new jail or expand the current jail.
“There is no convincing rationale for building a new jail, or for expanding the number of beds in the existing one,” the executive summary states.
Later the report adds, “There is no justification for the County to consider any expansion of its existing jail-cell footprint, unless it simply decides it wishes to build a more modern facility enabling direct supervision and greater flexibility in the provision of correctional services.”
Instead, CGR projects that the jail population will be significantly reduced by 2020 and beyond.
The report states: “Further reductions in the average daily census of at least 29 beds per night from current census levels should begin to occur within the next year and be fully in place by 2020 if recommended changes are made in several ATIs and community initiatives. Although the County has in place an impressive array of alternative programs, CGR concluded that more can be done to expand the impact of these and other emerging initiatives, thereby making possible lower numbers of occupied jail beds per night, beginning over the next year or two and continuing over the next 25 years or more.”
In an interview with The Ithaca Voice on Tuesday, Legislator Rich John, who chairs the Jail Study Committee, said how the county runs its jail is a reflection of its community values.
“I see that over and over again. If you look at who we’re putting in jail … they tell us a lot about how we deal with people as a community,” John said.
After being formed in September, the Jail Study Committee has held monthly public meetings where members of the community and local organizations have discussed a wide range of issues that impact number of people in jail — such as mental health, substance abuse, the need and planned opening of a detox facility, as well as criminal justice issues like releasing more people on their own recognizance and having an attorney present at first arraignment.
During the course of the study, CGR interviewed more than 125 people in the community knowledgeable about the jail and criminal justice system. CGR also met with the Jail Study Committee, the Criminal Justice Alternatives-to-Incarceration committee, two groups of people with experience as defendants in the local criminal justice system and as inmates in the Tompkins County Jail and participated in a town hall meeting.
At the town hall meeting the report references, Legislature Chambers were packed and community members that spoke made it clear they were not in favor of any expansion of the jail. Instead, residents advocated for more services in the community to address issues such as substance abuse and mental health.
The Tompkins County Jail population has increased steadily through 2015, but the report projects that population will enter a period of “modest but steady decline” from now through at least 2040. Even if there are no changes made to current practices and programs, the population is projected to modestly decline. But the report does make recommendations to help speed the decline of the population.
The report states that based on their analysis and evidence from cases in other communities, their estimates of beds avoided per night are “realistic, feasible and relatively easy and cost effective to implement.”
The report makes five major recommendations to reduce jail population, but also finds additional ways to reduce population. It also recommends changes to the current jail and criminal justice system, data system and makes some recommendations for the community.
- Expanded substance abuse assessments and expedited access to residential rehab treatment
- Increased pre-trial release impact
- Expanded use of electronic monitoring
- Misdemeanor Drug Court expansion
- Creation of medical detox apart from current jail
In addition to the major strategies with the report says will have a direct immediate impact on reducing jail population, the report recommends several other strategies to reduce the jail population as well:
- Re-assess the process of making pre-sentence investigation recommendations
- Consider expanded use of day reporting as a sentencing alternative to jail
- Consider expanded use of Service Work Alternative Program as a sentencing alternative to jail and restructuring
- Refocusing existing re-entry programs to better meet intended goals of the programs.
- This could include creating space within the existing Day Reporting facility to facilitate services to ex-inmates returning to the community.
- Monitor and consider expansion of transitional housing support initiative.
- County should continue to push for the development and implementation of the Law Enforcement Alternative Diversion concept.
- County should push New York to reduce the number of parole violators committed to the Tompkins County Jail.
The report also recommended way to improve the Tompkins County Jail. Many people have asked the county to consider expanding services within the jail and creating additional space to make those services available. While the report states there is no need to expand the number of beds and cells, the county should consider steps to expand the overall footprint of the jail to allow for more services.
- Expand medical services/nursing services within the jail
- Expand other on-site services, treatment, counseling and links to post-jail services
- The county should expand space for services within the jail
- The report says “Our recommended preferred strategy would involve renovation of adjacent space, by moving the sheriff’s administrative offices and road patrol and related functions out of the Public Safety Building and using the freed-up space for expanded important services.
- The county should begin a long-term process of planning for jail replacement or renovation.
- The report states: “While we do not believe that jail expansion is necessary or desirable in the foreseeable future, and while the clear desire of many in the community appears to be to avoid building a new facility, initiation of a long-term planning process would enable the community to obtain full possible value out of the existing facility while also at least considering whether a modern facility with similar or reduced licensed capacity (consistent with our recommendations) would lead to more efficient operation, expanded program space and more humane conditions for those that are remanded to custody in future years.”
The report continues to make recommendations to the judicial and criminal justice system. It states that judges, attorneys and Pre-Trial Release should commit to the presumption of non-financial release because it would go a long way toward eliminating the significant number of inmates detained in jail for substantial periods of time on bails of $1,000 or less. The report also says judges should make more frequent use of alternatives to incarceration.
The report will be presented to the Jail Study Committee at 5 p.m. July 20 in Tompkins County Legislature Chambers.
Find the full report on the Tompkins County Criminal Justice and Jail Assessment Project website.
Read the full list of recommendations here: