Editor's note: This is a selection from Ithaca Times' Readers Writes 2017, a collection of reader submitted material on the theme "justice."
Wow. Justice. This is a topic worthy of the year end Readers’ Writes issue. It is a timely subject too, as real questions of justice will be directly in front of Tompkins County this coming year. But maybe the topic is too big. What does the word really mean? For some guidance, perhaps we can start with someone who thought the big thoughts, Aristotle. He saw the ideal of justice as a good by nature (in itself). In contrast, because for the just man, justice must be learned, he or she represented a lesser good than justice itself. As it is not essential to being a man to be just, he saw justice in people as a variable. Similarly, he reasoned that admiring justice in a friend is a higher virtue than desiring justice from an enemy that could harm you, presumably because of the self-interest.
Well, yes. Although it is hardly newsworthy to note that we struggle towards the higher principles of justice, and arrive at something less than perfection. But it is perhaps a useful starting point to recognize that, implicit in what Aristotle is saying, justice is relational. If there was only one person left in the world, justice would not really mean anything at all. Justice is what we do to each other, or is done to us. And we can be more or less just to each other. And at the governmental level, we can really only deal in this lesser self-interested and imperfect definition of justice. Further, as a government, we cannot do nothing. Even not deciding is a choice with a string of consequences, for justice as in many other realms.
Anyway, whether you know it or not, all of us imperfect people in Tompkins County, are engaged in a large experiment to redefine some pieces of what that more immediate lesser form of justice means here. Both County government and several not-for-profit agencies spent a lot of 2016 and 2017 thinking, planning and budgeting on major changes to our criminal justice system. In 2018, we will work to see what we can make real.
We always want our systems to work, and to work better. In particular, the ongoing opiate crisis demands both a public safety and public health response. But a factor that helped prompt this recent introspection was the New York State Commission of Correction determining that we needed to act to reduce overcrowding at our Jail. The message was that we had to reduce the number of prisoners boarded out to other jails by either expanding our Jail or reducing the number of people we hold. One or the other. The clear consensus of the citizens who came and shared their opinions was that we needed to put a smaller percentage of our population in the Jail, rather than make the facility bigger. We are betting (on behalf of you the taxpayer) that we can make our system better, not bigger.
Tompkins County is already a leader in the State in terms of using alternatives to incarceration (“ATIs”) to keep our Jail population down. We have implemented a variety of programs to help us run our Jail at about a third of the national average. Based on population, Tompkins runs a dramatically smaller jail than our neighboring counties. Our crime rate is comparable with our neighbors, so it does not seem that we are paying for the lower jail population with more crime.
But because we have already implemented good and effective programming, the low hanging fruit has been picked. We have OAR with its bail program. Our District Attorney has explicitly stated a policy of releasing people charged with a misdemeanor, rather than routinely requesting jail and bail. We have misdemeanor and felony drug court. We have counsel at first arraignment. We have electronic monitoring and day reporting. We have a mobile mental health response unit to help the police with interventions. And more.
But we have to do better if we are truly going to reduce the Jail population. As a result, the County budget includes a series of new spending items intended to expand our existing ATIs and introduce new ones. Probation is expanding its electronic monitoring capability and its Drug Court presence. The Mental Health Department is launching a revamped reentry program to help match services to people leaving the Jail. We are working with the City of Ithaca to stand up a new program called Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (“LEAD”) that would give arresting officers the discretion to divert certain non-violent offenders into the social services system, rather than the jail. The Tompkins County Alcohol and Drug Counsel is working to open a 40 bed detox/stabilization facility. Offender Assistance and Restoration is opening its Endeavor House to provide housing to people coming out of the Jail. Cayuga Addiction and Recovery Services is expanding by 25 beds its substance abuse treatment center in Trumansburg. The County increased funding to another OAR program called the Upstate College Initiative that, as the name implies, helps people out of the criminal justice system and into education. We are hiring a new position of Criminal Justice Coordinator to track and report on the overall effort.
The underlying point of much of the ATI programming is to not just warehouse individuals for a time, but to address, at least for some of these people, the basics behind their involvement in our system. People become involved in the criminal justice system often correlate with issues of misuse of alcohol and drugs, mental illness, poverty, homelessness, racism, lack of education or training, unemployment, and just plain despair. Addressing the basic numbers of people in our Jail in a meaningful way actually requires examining and attacking these underlying factors that damage our social fabric. Our emphasis on ATIs is in no way meant to be “soft” on crime. Participation in the ATIs should be harder than jail in that there will be demands for behavioral change. And, yes, we will not reach everyone. We recognize that some individuals just need to be in jail for their own safety or the safety of others. But the idea is to try.
So 2018 is where our experiment really begins. Can we get these initiatives on line? Can we get them working? Will our local judges use all the tools we are putting in their toolboxes? Will these programs make a difference in Jail population and the need for board outs? In the longer term, will our efforts appreciably reduce the number of people who routinely cycle through our Jail? If we are successful in further reducing our Jail numbers, will we see more crime? If we are keeping someone out of Jail, are they being properly punished for misbehavior? Are ATIs “fair” to the victims of crime? Are you the taxpayers getting value? And, of course, do all of these collective imperfect efforts move us closer to a better community?
These are all good and necessary questions we are going to try to answer in 2018. Tompkins County intends to continue as a leader in New York State in building this more comprehensive approach to criminal justice and public health. This is ambitious and exciting. We want to be fair. We want to be safe. We want to see a rising tide lift all boats. And we can only hope to do so in a humble imperfect way, with imperfect people and programs that are limited in scope and funding. Ultimately, the answers we arrive at will say a lot about defining ourselves as a community. Is this justice? What would Aristotle call it?
Rich John is a Tompkins County Legislator and chairman of the Public Safety Committee.