TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y.—Decarceration and incarceration alternatives have been a topic of recent discussion over the past few months at the Health and Human Services Committee meetings, and at the Sept. 20 meeting (which can be watched here), the committee saw a presentation on the topic.

Several of the legislators had visited the transitional facility Sunflower House over the past week to meet and engage with the staff and participants. The agenda for the meeting can be viewed here, and those interested can watch the full meeting here.

Paula Ioanide, primary investigator with the Center for Policing Equity, spoke about the Sunflower House research assessment and its impact on recidivism rates in Tompkins County.

“In 2017, the Tompkins County jail was overcapacity, and the county legislature chose not to build a bigger jail, saving taxpayers approximately $18 million — instead, what they did was broaden the investment in additional alternatives to incarceration. […] To date, we have successfully reduced the number of people in the local jail to an average of 40 a month for the past two years,” Ioanide said.

Ioanide also credited District Attorney Matthew Van Houten for “decriminalizing poverty and what are sometimes referred to as quality of life crimes, such as substance use and things associated with houselessness, and instead using tickets to appear instead of jail as a default go-to.” Van Houten has been vocal in his efforts to decrease the number of people imprisoned in Tompkins County.

The presentation also highlighted a lack of affordable housing, employment stigmatization and exclusions, lack of transportation from rural areas, lack of health access and services and substance use as systemic barriers to reentry in Tompkins County.

With 22 participants in the Sunflower Houses, 50% are on parole, 24% are on probation and 22% court-involved, according to David Sanders of Opportunities, Alternatives, and Resources of Tompkins County (OAR).

Risk factors include substance use and a lack of engagement, both things that Sanders said are constant efforts to address. “We work diligently with partners that are willing to help to provide the resources necessary to help our folks in crisis. We might be the last resort — if someone is struggling with addiction, we do not say ‘You need to leave,’ we say ‘What are your goals.’”

Discussion of The Ithaca Designated Encampment Site (TIDES)

Legislator Dan Klein read a public comment emailed to him by Jerry Dietz of CPS Management who owns a property on Brindley Street and is in support of The Ithaca Designated Encampment Site (TIDES) proposal. Dietz spoke about a recent death at an encampment in Ithaca, and said these types of outcomes can be avoided.

“People are living in conditions we would not let our animals exist in — we asked for results from the outreach and support people […] and [Monday] a person died. TIDES is not the entire answer to the problem,” but Dietz believes it would provide more dignified shelter for individuals unable to access conventional housing.

Dietz asked the committee to “recognize the urgency of this situation and to recommend to the county legislature the critical importance of supporting the TIDES program.”

A larger discussion followed with various questions on the topic of TIDES, including one from Klein asking about other low-barrier housing programs that receive state or federal funding, which TIDES will not.

Another question on the topic of prosecuting trespassing on encampment sanctioned land, was addressed to Van Houten, who responded saying that “We don’t prosecute trespassing on public lands now, and the goal of the TIDES program is to decrease the number of people camping in unsanctioned encampments. We can’t criminalize this type of houselessness.”

Van Houten also raised the questions of how to encourage people to utilize TIDES as a program rather than continuing to camp in unsanctioned encampments.

Legislator Randy Brown asked if flood risk is a problem with the proposed location of where TIDES would be. Megan McDonald, deputy commissioner of planning and sustainability for Tompkins County, responded that considerations will be made moving forward so as to not put already vulnerable people in environmentally difficult situations.

Legislator Mike Sigler said that he is concerned about not enforcing undesignated encampments. “If the police arrest people, we’re not going to prosecute them, then there’s no enforcement. It doesn’t matter if you put up an encampment or not. People are going to camp wherever the hell they want.”

Sigler also said that the police force doesn’t have the capacity to arrest people for offenses that’ll only result in an appearance ticket. “Why would the police waste their time doing that? They just wouldn’t.”

Sigler said that he wants “people to focus on the mental health stabilization center, which is going to be vastly more expensive. […] We can’t escape this problem anymore — I wish that would be where our bandwidth was.”

Klein said that the crisis stabilization center addresses a different need than TIDES, and that both can be focused on.

Legislator Travis Brooks said that something has to be done to address the issues that individuals are having both outside and inside of the unsanctioned encampments, like those discussed in a public comment at last week’s Common Council meeting from a resident at Nate’s Floral Estates.

Thus far, Klein said that a formal discussion has not occurred between the county and the City of Ithaca other than within the TIDES working group.

Other news and notes

  • A budget adjustment for the purchase of a laptop for the Office for the Aging passed unanimously.
  • A grant for New York’s Long Term Care Ombudsman Program (LTCOP ARPA) acceptance of funding was passed unanimously.
  • Public Health Director Frank Kruppa gave an update on the merger between the mental and public health departments, which will function under the name of the Tompkins County Department of Whole Health.
  • Sigler will be organizing a time for Tompkins County officials to visit the Dutchess County Crisis Stabilization Center.
  • There was a significant portion of the meeting designated to discussion of opioid settlement funds, how to distribute testing strips and what an opioid task force may look like. Another article dealing more in-depth with those topics is coming later this week.

Zoë Freer-Hessler

Zoë Freer-Hessler is a general assignment reporter for the Ithaca Voice. She has covered a wide range of topics since joining the news organization in November 2021. She can be reached at zhessler@ithacavoice.com...