Opinion: New Cortland County jail facility is not the solution

Several members of the public hold signs that read, “NO more jails, not in Cortland, not in Broome, not in Tompkins counties,” at a meeting of the Cortland County Public Safety Facility Needs and Assessment Committee on Dec. 1 (Sara S./Cortland Voice)

Editor's Note: The following is a joint letter submitted by Decarcerate Tompkins County, Justice and Unity for the Southern Tier, and United Voices of Cortland. Have a dissenting opinion? Submit your letters to news@cortlandvoice.com.

On Dec. 1, the Cortland County’s Public Safety Facility Needs and Assessment Committee declined to recommend the construction of a new jail that would cost the county upwards of $100 million with bond costs included. It was a wise decision.

For over three decades the State Commission on Corrections (SCOC) has forced counties across the state to build big new jails at county expense—all to lock up persons charged under state laws, as one legislator noted.

Local lawmakers and residents consistently oppose SCOC’s bullying, but, with limited resources and knowledge compared to the state, are often cowed.

But the data is clear: build more jail spaces and more prisoners will be come. More people will be locked up for petty crimes and poverty. We have seen the same in Broome and Tompkins counties.

Like many counties in the state, Cortland County is, according to the numbers, safer now than five years ago. From 2011 to 2016, the number of index crimes reported in Cortland County to the FBI fell by 25%. Violent and property crimes are both down. Felony and misdemeanor arrests have also dropped.

The number of people incarcerated by Cortland County, however, has spiked. The average number of people locked away is up 30% in those same five years. The majority are unconvicted of any crime.

The incongruity between falling crime and higher incarceration rates demands an explanation from local officials, especially judges, the District Attorney, and law enforcement. “Overcrowding” is increasingly an overincarceration problem stemming from inadequate responses to the worse public health crisis of the last 20 years, the opioid epidemic.

New jail construction is both a massive waste of our county funds and unjust. As study after independent study shows—most recently for Tompkins county—jail populations can be readily reduced by bail reform and alternatives-to-incarceration.

What we need above all are smarter programs and less jail: in the midst of an opioid and heroin epidemic, our family, friends, and neighbors need treatment to recover. Locking up people with substance use disorders increases mental and physical suffering and does little to prevent relapse upon release. Improper detox in jails can kill, raising the prospect of multi-million-dollar settlements paid from diminished county coffers.

We’ve similarly watched our mental health programs get cut and close, shunting yet more people with disabilities right into our jails. Jails are not, quite simply, treatment centers.

The call to build new jails will continue: we should resist them and demand that state and county funds go to better uses.

— Decarcerate Tompkins County
— Justice and Unity for the Southern Tier
— United Voices of Cortland