Tompkins County Legislature Building

As Tompkins County begins one of the most ambitious overhauls of its criminal justice system in its 200-year history, legislators on Thursday afternoon raised the question of how they, as a government, could be sure their efforts were paying off.

Their strategy, based on a suite of various alternatives to incarceration programs paid for, in part, by new casino taxes, was crafted in response to a rescinding of a variance issued by New York State to allow double bunking in the chronically overcrowded county jail. A conclusion that came after extensive research, hours of discussion and intense public pressure, legislators are now looking to the future in order to hold their decisions accountable and be able to sense, in real time, how much impact their solutions are actually having in improving the way Tompkins County operates its criminal justice system.

Though still needing study, the first likely answer will come by way of true understanding of whether or not the programs put in place under the county’s suite of programming are reforming people enough to keep them from returning to jail.

“I think the global measure is jail population, and other than that is recidivism,” Martha Robertson, a County Legislator from Dryden, said. “And I’m not sure we know that. We need to know how many of our folks have been in there more than once. If we can measure that, and see how we can bring that number down, how do we get there?”

Defining recidivism, it turns out, is a tough thing to do: As an institution, New York State only defines recidivism by felony arrests, leaving the county to define its own idea of what recidivism means, whether we define that as violations or misdemeanors committed after more serious crimes, or otherwise. There’s also the debate to be had between cold calculation and the question of humanity to balance: You can budget for electronic monitoring, Jail Study Committee Chairman Rich John noted, but how does one gauge the criminal justice benefits of youth programs, or reforms like assigned counsel at first arraignment – a provision that goes beyond basic constitutional requirements – to guarantee taxpayers are seeing some sort of benefit from their efforts?

This is a question raised by Legislator Anna Kelles, who said in the future, conversations on a program’s benefit should be set up to be “colorful” and encompass the full spectrum of potential impacts on the public good, rather than just being looked at from a strict cost/benefit perspective.

“We should have some idea of what we’re spending on this and being able to say, ‘this is worth it.’” John said. “We still don’t want to do boardouts, even if it’s cheaper. And there’s the social damage.”

If the program is successful, there are also some unintended impacts to be expected: If the headcount in the jail gets low enough, the Tompkins County Jail might have to start boarding in inmates from other counties with overcrowding issues of their own.

Other Jail News:

  • Some serious changes are coming for healthcare in the jail. Cayuga Addiction Recovery Services started a program to provide inmates with vivitrol (a drug that helps prevent drug and alcohol relapses) out of the jail four weeks ago, as sort of a precursor to the detox facility that may soon be built within the jail. So far, the program has already had one client – significant because, as jail supervisor Ray Bunce said, other jails have tried for close to a year to institute similar programs with no success. In addition to this program, two healthcare related positions – a full-time social worker and one additional jail nurse – have been hired as part of a number of recommendations funded under next year’s county budget.

  • New York State has given the jail a deadline of January 10th to uninstall all of the double bunks in the jail, signifying the absolute cut-off of the variance it received to allow more inmates than its intended capacity. The bunks, made of metal, will likely be stored on-site and outdoors, for lack of space. Why aren’t we getting rid of them? Well, Bunce said, Tompkins County received a similar directive before, only to be required to re-install the bunks later on.

  • Bunce said we’ve seen an uptick in mental health issues in the jail. And oftentimes, even after a doctor will say someone needs help, they’ll end up sitting in the jail waiting for a bed in a mental health facility that isn’t opening up, mostly because of the state’s concerted effort to close a number of these facilities without constructing suitable replacements. This often leaves the judge who sentences inmate coming up against a brick wall: They have nowhere to send these people.
    “It’s something people in local government have been dealing with for 20 years,” said legislator Jim Dennis. “They’ll close something up and just drop it, and push it off to the local government to deal with.”

County leaders get demonstration of mass 911 notification system

A representative from emergency alert application company Swift 911 demonstrated the product recently adopted by every municipality in Tompkins County to the County Legislature on Thursday afternoon.

The app basically allows county officials – using nothing more than a smartphone – to create a geographically targeted alert for everything from gas leaks to major accidents. The alerts, the representative said, could be tailored by municipality or even within an arbitrary radius of an incident, and can communicate the events to the public with notifications via voice message or text, even by Facebook and Twitter post.

Tompkins County, the City of Ithaca and all the town governments opted into the system in October by moving all landlines onto the system. (Members of the public who would like to receive alerts through their smartphone or email need to opt in separately.) Tompkins County residents can enter their contact information as well as vital medical and personal information – like whether or not you have heart problems, or perhaps a pet in the home – to better tailor emergency service’s response to your individual needs.

After queries were submitted by a number of environmental activists, it was revealed private companies – like Dominion Transmission, which owns a gas compressor station on Ellis Hollow Creek Road – can work with the towns in order to have events they may be the source of, like gas blowdowns, be reflected through the app.

What Should The Police Tell The Public?

Following what some saw as a lack of information during the local SWAT Team’s response to a man barricading himself in a home on Ithaca’s South Hill last month, legislators on Thursday met with representatives with the Tompkins County Sheriff’s Department for a briefing on the department’s public information policy.

A 15-page document, much of the policy included within is “redundant,” said Sheriff’s office Public Information Officer Lt. Dan Donahue, but each rule is intended to govern every interaction the police has with media, with each situation handled in different ways. Though fairly noncontroversial at face value, the rise of social media – and eyewitness’ ability to share information in real-time, online, that might circumvent confidential details kept quiet in active investigations – has presented some issues, from unwanted crowds at crime scenes to unforced errors in protocol.

“Social media has made it very difficult for us,” said Donahue. “We’ll talk about fatality accidents, and we have to make a barrier there. Because if someone takes a photo or a video or shares it before we can notify the family… that’s a problem.”

“Nobody wants to be notified of something like that by a post on their phone or from social media,” he added. “That’s something we take very seriously. We try and make contact with every family member we can before we disseminate that information, and that takes time.”

Though brought up on the topic of South Hill, some legislators asked about the department’s policies on sharing mugshots, or other news releases on people’s arrests that get distributed to the media. It turns out, like editorial decisions in the media, the reasons are completely arbitrary and based on what arrests the department feels it’s in the public’s interest to know.

“Sometimes it’s (posting press releases) based on availability, whether myself or another sergeant,” said Donahue. “Some people will ask us not to put an arrest on the website or publicise it – we really can’t do that – but there is no specific criteria in what we put on the website or what we don’t.”

Follow Nick Reynolds on Twitter @Nickthaca

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