tcsheriffoffice120The Legislature considered, but failed to approve, a proposal to authorize a one-year delay on the planned renovation of the county jail—that moratorium urged by community members deeply concerned about the addition of seven more jail beds.  Legislator Leslyn McBean-Clairborne proposed the measure to delay the project to allow the new Jail Alternatives Task Force, being formed through the County’s Criminal Justice Advisory Board, to complete its work before any action is taken on the jail project.  While noting that Tompkins has been “at the cutting edge of counties” in the area of incarceration alternatives, she maintained delay would be prudent to allow the new task force to do its work before proceeding with the capital project.

Legislators listened to nearly two hours of impassioned comments by those concerned about the project and urging the moratorium.  More than 100 people packed the Legislature Chambers, and at least a quarter of them addressed the Legislature—urging that the county not join in what was described as society’s move toward mass incarceration and maintaining that the time had come to make a difference at the local level in the criminal justice system.  In more than an hour of thoughtful discussion that followed, many Legislators thanked those expressing concern for their initiative and their input—saying they have had an impact in prompting the renewed examination of additional ways to reduce the jail population.

But, ultimately, most indicated that, while they firmly support that review, they do not support project delay.  The moratorium measure failed by a vote of 3-11, Legislators McBean-Clairborne, Kathy Luz Herrera, and Mike Sigler voting in favor.  Several pointed to the human costs of waiting—inmates boarded out for lack of space and removed from their families and services.  Legislator Dan Klein said, “If I thought this project would put even one more person in jail, I wouldn’t approve it.”  Public Safety Chair Brian Robison maintained the project would produce benefit by reducing jail overcrowding, even with a reduction of the jail population, and he noted that the close to quarter-million dollars the County pays annually in inmate board-out costs could support some of the new alternatives to be recommended.

County Administrator Joe Mareane said a bonding resolution for the jail project, and for $1.5 million to renovate the County Human Services Building to provide a new home for the Day Reporting program, will come through County committees and to the Legislature next month.  Legislator Dooley Kiefer cautioned she is not prepared to vote for the project before seeing a very detailed plan.

Legislator McBean-Clairborne said the issue of incarceration is actually a larger community conversation involving more than just the County Legislature, and she urged those concerned to become involved in other areas, such as the court system, and to create a sustained movement to make change happen.

Last week the Legislature’s Public Safety Committee formally requested an in-depth review spanning up to six months of additional measures that could be employed to reduce the population of the Tompkins County Jail.

By unanimous motion, the Committee requested the County’s Criminal Justice/Alternatives to Incarceration Board (CJATI) to form a task force (to include at least two members who are not County employees or criminal justice professionals) “that will consider and may recommend County initiatives, in addition to the array of programs already in place, that may safely and prudently reduce the population of the Tompkins County Jail.”  Under the Committee’s charge, the task force “will engage the public, criminal justice professionals, County department and agency heads, and other knowledgeable individuals to solicit ideas for further reducing the number of individuals incarcerated at the County jail.  Based on the ideas presented, the task force will undertake a review of the options that it finds to offer the greatest possibility of safely and prudently reducing the jail population.”  All task force meetings will be open to the public, with one session devoted exclusively to accepting public input, and at least half of the meetings must occur in the evening

The task force, to be led by CJATI chair Suzi Cook and OAR Director Deborah Dietrich, will be
assisted by County Administration and other County staff as needed.  Its review is to include consideration of the cost of the initiative, the extent to which the initiative is within the County’s control and can be implemented by the County, an assessment of the impact of the initiative on the safety of the community and the well-being of individuals in the system, and the expected impact on the number of individuals housed at the jail, as well as other considerations identified by the task force.  The task force is to report monthly to the Public Safety Committee, and report its findings and recommendations within six months to CJATI, which will then transmit the report, with or without modification, to the Public Safety Committee.

Public Safety Committee Chair Brian Robison expressed high hopes for the process, saying, “This is the best recommendation we can give,” with a lot of work ahead by members of the task force.

The Committee also endorsed acceptance of the first year of State grant funding to support a new Alternatives-to-Incarceration program, a defender-based sentencing advocacy initiative for defendants facing criminal charges in Tompkins County.  The New York State Office of Indigent Legal Services has awarded the Assigned Counsel program a more than $100,000 grant, spread over three years, to support the cost of the service provided by the Center for Community Alternatives (CCA), a Syracuse-based non-profit organization with 30 years experience in providing such services.  Assigned Counsel Director Julia Hughes told the committee that CCA, as part of a team effort, will “humanize” the client in the sentencing process, providing local defense attorney training; consultation, investigation, and report preparation support for identified cases; and referral information for relevant support services.

A proposal to authorize a one-year moratorium on the jail renovation project, as has been requested by some concerned community members, failed to be advanced from the committee by a 3-2 vote.  Legislator Leslyn McBean-Clairborne, who proposed the measure, said it would be a “good faith effort” to put a hold on the capital project until the study of further alternatives-to-incarceration is completed.  Ms. McBean-Clairborne said she would bring forward the proposal again as a member-filed resolution before the full Legislature.