Cortland forum explores alternatives to incarceration

CORTLAND, N.Y. — Over two dozen people gathered at the Cortland Community Center on Wednesday evening to discuss alternative options to incarceration as the county weighs its options for a possible future new public safety complex. The overwhelming sentiment from community members—ranging from concerned citizens to county legislators—is how to efficiently and appropriately incarcerate fewer people while maintaining public safety.

Mechthild Nagel, chair of the United Voices of Cortland community group, invited the Vera Institute of Justice, a NYC-based non-profit that researches criminal justice policy and incarceration trends, to host a forum so community stakeholders could voice their opinions and ask questions concerning Cortland’s current and future criminal justice needs and how to identify areas for reform.

Insha Rahman, who leads Vera’s work on bail reform, pretrial justice, and jail reduction in New York, outlined the major questions that need to be answered in order to assess Cortland County’s needs: How is the system working from the time of arrest to the time of arraignment (who is coming in and how long are they staying)? What percentage of inmates can’t afford bail? What services and resources are available in Cortland to individuals during and after incarceration?

Rahman led the forum by pointing out that statewide data reflects that two-thirds of anyone who is in jail in New York state is in jail in the 57 counties outside of New York City. And although there’s been a huge decline in the number of people in jail statewide along with a decline in crime rates, upstate counties, Cortland County, specifically, have seen a quiet boom in incarceration (while arrest rates are flat).

Furthermore, according to data from 2016, over fifty percent of the inmates in Cortland County’s jail are comprised of non-violent offenders.

Many of the concerns voiced by community members centered on how to provide drug addiction treatment to incarcerated individuals, especially in a county that is facing a burgeoning opioid epidemic. Rahman cited a study on Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT) that was brought into jails to treat inmates with substance abuse disorders and its positive effect on reducing drug addiction rates. Others questioned how to improve jail conditions while being mindful of costs to the taxpayer. The county’s current boarding-out costs are over $400,000 a year. Some pointed out the shortage of behavioral health specialists in the county and the need to recruit and retain social workers.

“I want to remind everybody,” Rahman stated as she opened the floor to questions and concerns. "It’s not just about the jail, but it’s really about the larger delivery of justice here in this county.”

Some of the ideas proffered by Rahman were to contact local and state legislators to advocate for criminal justice policy changes; the creation of a Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) team to redirect low-level offenders into social services and treatment; at the police station, giving police officers more discretion in giving Desk Appearance Tickets (DAT) requiring defendants to appear in court at a later date instead of incarceration; providing training to judges about expanding available sentencing options; facilitating faster case processing by creating hub courts that meet more often; making sure lawyers and defense counselors appear at a defendant’s first appearance before a judge; and sentencing offenders to probation or community-based programs.

The Vera Institute for Justice will visit Cortland on several occasions in the upcoming months to analyze data and, coupled with their meetings with law enforcement and community members, provide recommendations for areas of reform for the county.

A public meeting will be held at 7 p.m. at the Cortland Community Center on Thursday, Nov. 15, to present data.