In recent months, residents and elected officials in Tompkins County have focused much attention on criminal justice reform. We could become the leader in social justice if we stops criminalizing social problems and rethinks our approach to drug use, mental health, poverty, and homelessness.
The Tompkins County Legislature has taken some encouraging steps in this direction—but we need to go further. After careful study, including an outside review from the Center on Government Research (CGR), the legislature voted against the expansion of the local jail. Now, the county must determine how to reduce the existing jail population and avoid the future cost of “boarding out” detainees to other facilities.
As part of this effort, the County Legislature recently transferred funds and personnel from the Mental Health Department to the Sheriff’s Office. Soon, there will be a psychiatric physician and a mental-health counselor in order to provide mental health evaluations, and treatment in the county jail. Unfortunately, these decisions exemplifies the troubling trend that James Kilgore, author of Understanding Mass Incarceration, calls “carceral humanism,” or the recasting of jails as social service providers. In other words, in broadening the responsibilities of the Sheriff’s Office to include psychological services, the County Legislature criminalized mental illness, making a public health issue a matter for the cops, courts, and county jail.
Meanwhile, the City of Ithaca is putting in place Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD), a program which would allow Ithaca Police officers to refer people to a case worker, instead of making a low-level arrest. While LEAD sounds promising, it could easily reproduce the same dynamics that have undermined most criminal justice reforms. For example, existing diversion programs, such as drug court, often fall into the trap that criminologists call “net-deepening” and “net-widening,” where criminal-justice reforms simply extends the reach and legitimacy of penal sanction over a greater area of social life. As Pollack and Reuter show in their 2013 study, drug courts have failed to substantially reduce the human flow into prisons and jails. Instead, the tight eligibility and sentencing requirements these courts impose merely delay the time many drug offenders find themselves behind bars. Rather than reducing harm and mending broken relationships, as in the model of restorative justice, these types of diversion programs supplement the use of incarceration.
We fear that LEAD will be unable to overcome these dynamics. Plainly, LEAD empowers the police to decide who gets criminalized and who gets referred to services. It increases the scope of policing by adding a social work function to it. In this way, LEAD could easily become the policing complement to carceral humanism. Perhaps LEAD could avoid this trap if there were meaningful community control over the program to ensure it actually diverts people from the cycle of incarceration and punitive nonalternative “alternatives.” LEAD can only avoid this carceral humanist conundrum, if the basic needs of historically marginalized people need to be met.
As a community, we have already acknowledged this commonsense conclusion. The second recommendation of the CGR report was “to address systemic issues such as racism, affordable housing, transportation, employment, and poverty.” These issues are “beyond the scope of this study and what we were asked by the County to address. But they all impact directly on the jail population and certainly the overall quality of life and opportunities available to residents.” We know the root causes of crime are social, not individual. Yet, the local elected leaders insist on only using criminal justice approaches.
With this in mind, the Abolition Working group of the Ithaca Chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America calls on local elected officials to take the necessary first steps in this direction by de-criminalizing drug use, untreated mental illness, and the petty crimes associated with chronic poverty. Recognizing that these problems cannot be addressed with criminal justice measures, we demand immediate action to ensure all residents of Tompkins County have a right to healthcare, housing, and living wage employment.
Meeting these basic needs would proactively address the problems we currently manage on the backend through policing and incarceration. We call on our elected officials to aggressively and tirelessly advocate for a universal healthcare system at the state and national level. Although providing universal healthcare on a county level is a daunting task, there are other issues within our immediate control. For example, the Tompkins County Industrial Development Agency, a public benefit corporation, has abated approximately $15 million in potential future tax revenue for two luxury housing developments, City Centre and Harold Square. These giveaways to private real-estate developments provide no plausible public benefit. These abatements include no affordable housing, local labor, or living wage requirements. The IDA’s priorities are clearly misplaced. We could do more to provide housing to those who find themselves struggling in the margins of our community—we could do more for our neighbors, family, and friends.
To their credit, some County Legislators, working with community leaders, are working toward a local minimum wage increase. Such job market policies can be real alternatives to incarceration. Agan and Makowsky’s 2018 study shows a minimum-wage increase can more effectively reduce recidivism than the now dominant employability-based re-entry programs, which provide “job training” for formerly incarcerated people, but without guaranteeing employment. We applaud these efforts and call on our elected leaders to go further and put in place proactive measures like “ban the box” legislation, which would prohibit employers from asking prospective employees about their criminal records. These are important steps toward a humane local economy that provides for everyone.
We are calling for a paradigm shift in our political thinking. We need bold ideas to undo mass incarceration. We need to decriminalize social problems and provide for the basic needs of every member of our community. We need the freedom of abolition: the elimination of the violent regulation of behavior. We need the dignity of socialism: a comprehensive public infrastructure that decommodifies health, welfare and housing guaranteeing them for all.
Op-Ed By The Abolition Working Group of the Ithaca Chapter of the Democratic Socialist of America.