Merits of new Cortland County jail debated, as lawmakers approve phase one of project

CORTLAND, N.Y. – Despite hesitation from some lawmakers, the Cortland County Legislature voted Thursday night to spend nearly $150,000 to explore possible sites for a new county jail.

Legislators Susan Briggs, Amy Cobb and Luke Snyder voted against the proposal.

The county now plans to move forward with SMRT Architects & Engineers, which will explore project development, pre-architectural planning and site assessment for the proposed jail.

Briggs said while she was not opposed to the idea of a new jail, there should be more public discussion on the issue before lawmakers move forward.

“I think the taxpayers of this county and our municipalities have the right to know…how we would finance an approximately $40 million project,” Briggs said.

The case for building a new public safety building was laid out in a 20-page report released earlier this month. Proponents of building a new jail point to overcrowding and deteriorating infrastructure at the current building, along with costs related to boarding out inmates to other facilities.

Mechthild Nagel, professor of philosophy at SUNY Cortland, asked the legislature to consider alternatives to incarceration rather than building an entirely new facility.

“It’s an ineffective and expensive approach to criminal justice,” Nagel said. “Alternatives to incarceration can greatly reduce the need for jail cells.”

Capt. Bud Riggs with the Cortland County Sheriff’s Department said such programs have been effective, but overcrowding continues to be a chronic problem at the jail.

“We try to do as much we can to rehabilitate people so that we don’t have high recidivism rates, but that doesn’t take care of the problem we face as a county right now,” Riggs said. “The decision that you need to make tonight is based on the future of this county.”

SMRT Architects & Engineers will look for up to six sites to present to the New York State Department of Corrections.

The current jail was built to house 50 inmates but currently holds just over 90 inmates, according to officials.