State gives Tompkins another 120 days to show progress on jail alternatives

The Tompkins County Public Safety Building (Photo: Kim Maddox/Ithaca Week)

The Tompkins County Public Safety Building (Photo: Kim Maddox/Ithaca Week)

ITHACA, N.Y. — Tompkins County is no longer feeling pressure from the state to expand its jail — at least for a few months — thanks to a decision from the New York State Commission of Corrections on Tuesday.

The county was thrown into a difficult position last month when the Commission of Corrections announced it would revoke a variance that the Tompkins jail has had in place since 2009, allowing them 18 extra beds in facility by double-bunking inmates in 18 cells.

According to the commission, an overcrowded jail presents risks to inmate safety and well-being. The state aggressively pushes to ensure that jails have enough beds to house their entire populations. Expanding the Tompkins jail, or even just having to board out 18 additional inmates, would be a massive financial burden on the county.

As commission Chairman Thomas A. Beilein said during the meeting, "The bottom line is the numbers." He noted that despite the extra 18 beds granted by the variance, Tompkins was still one bed short and had to board out one inmate.

The county's case

Tompkins County Sheriff Ken Lansing, County Administrator Joe Mareane and jail Captain Ray Bunce were in Albany for the meeting to plead their case. The county's position is that they want to focus efforts on reducing the number of inmates, rather than increasing the number of beds.

Mareane outlined some of the recent investments and efforts the county has made in this regard:

"This is not happy talk or trying to buy time," Mareane said, but rather represents a concrete commitment by the county to find alternatives to incarceration (ATIs).

The commissioners were appreciative of the county's ATI efforts and sympathetic to the challenges faced. Commissioner Thomas Loughren, who was formerly sheriff in Niagara County and said he had pushed for many similar programs in his time there. However, they also expressed some skepticism, especially considering that Tompkins has had the variance on its jail for so long.

Ultimately, they decided to extend the variance for another 120 days. Mareane stated that this should be ample time for the county to secure a consultant for the $85,000 population study and to see some work done on it.

While the study will most likely not be complete by that point, Beilein said that the commission expects to see evidence of real progress and regular updates from the county at every step of the process