ITHACA, N.Y. — The population of the Tompkins County Jail is dropping and expected to continue the downward trend.
A recent report’s findings that no new jail or expansion is needed has been welcome news to the community and legislators. Since the fall, Rochester-based Center for Governmental Research has been studying the current and projected population at the Tompkins County Jail.
Representatives from CGR presented the final report Thursday to the public and Jail Study Committee.
CGR has made several recommendations to further reduce jail population, as well as improve conditions within the jail and the criminal justice system. Though even if the county did nothing more, project director Don Pryor said, the jail population would still decrease.
Several community members that attended and spoke said they were happy an expansion was not recommended.
Ithaca resident Elan Shapiro, a member of Decarcerate Tompkins, said he was impressed with the depth and positive nature of the findings of the study.
“We believe one of the best things that has come out of this … is that we’re hoping there can be a continued, robust involvement of the community,” Shapiro said. “It’s a big, big task. We really see this as something that will take both the expertise from the people in the criminal justice system, but also just there’s a lot very active, intelligent people in the community … who have a lot to offer.”
Shapiro finished his comment by saying “strong collaboration” is what everyone wants moving forward.
At past Jail Study Committee meetings, members of the community have voiced their opposition to any expansion of the jail. Instead community members have said instead of punishing social problems like substance abuse, poverty and mental health, the county should work to address those issues and provide more services.
Legislator Anna Kelles said the report has brought the community and government to the same page.
“It feels more like the beginning,” Kelles said.
How Tompkins County can lower jail populatoin
The county’s hard examination of the Tompkins County Jail population was prompted by the New York State Commission of Correction. In August, the state revoked a variance allowing the jail to allow double bunking and operate with 18 extra beds, boosting the total number of beds to 100. Having the extra beds saved the county from too many costly board outs.
Though the variance has been reinstated several times since its initial revocation, the county has had to prove it is working to reduce the jail population — and it has. No one has pinpointed exactly why, but the jail population has remained low since September. As of Thursday, there were 64 inmates in the Tompkins County Jail, according to Capt. Ray Bunce.
By 2020, the census should be down by about 29 beds if several recommended changes are made, the report says.
The report includes five major recommendations to reduce jail population — expand substance abuse assessments and expedite access to residential rehab treatment, increase the impact of pre-trial release, expand the use of electronic monitoring, expand the use of misdemeanor drug court and support the creation of non-jail medical detox capacity.
The report recommends community improvements as well, suggesting the community continue to address systemic issues of racism, affordable housing, transportation, employment and poverty.
Sheriff Ken Lansing said the sheriff’s office will continue to encourage programs and alternatives to incarceration.
“I have never supported a new jail since I’ve taken office,” Lansing said. “We need to do what’s right by the community.”
One of the report’s recommendations for the criminal justice system is that judges and attorneys should commit to the presumption of non-financial release. The report says the presumption “is at the heart of many of our recommendations, and should 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.”
Several states, such as New Jersey, Maryland, New Mexico and Kentucky, have recently adopted laws or policies that move away from bail, the report says. It adds that evidence from these places shows that bail is not a “particularly effective” tool to reduce the rate of criminal behavior nor does it reduce the flight risk of someone awaiting trial.
District Attorney Matthew Van Houten said it his office’s policy that there should be a presumptive release, or no bail, for all non-violent misdemeanor cases “where there’s no threat to the community.” However, though it’s their policy, it remains up to judges in Tompkins County to set bail or not.
Improvements still won’t be cheap
Though the report does not call for an expanded jail, it does call for several improvements that won’t be cheap.
“You don’t want to do this on the cheap because you’ll pay for it in the long run,” Pryor said.
The report calls for a new full-time nurse, and possibly another assistant district attorney, new corrections officers and a mental health position.
The report also cites issues with the current amount of space at the jail and suggests the county may want to build a new jail in the future with more space not for beds, but for increased services.
“Virtually every discussion we had during the study concerning the jail and its services quickly generated often-unsolicited comments and concerns about space limitations and their implications for service delivery.” Space available for services and classes is limited to about three interview rooms, an educational room and one visitation room.
The report states that the nurse there currently operates in a small converted cell space. There are no medical cells or infirmary. There are also no cells set aside for detoxification or observation. Inmates needing detox are just integrated into the general jail population, the report states.
Legislator Rich John, chair of the Jail Study Committee, said in the way the library reflects community values, the jail also reflects the values of the community.
“You can focus on punishment. You can focus on warehousing. You can focus on trying to do something more. Very clearly Tompkins County focuses on doing something more,” John said.
The full report is available to view on the Tompkins County Criminal Justice and Jail Assessment Project website.