On Nov. 16, members of the Tompkins County Legislature voted 8-6 in favor of not expanding the Tompkins County jail.
The legislature split 7-7 on passing the proposed Tompkins County 2005 budget.
They will vote again on Dec. 7, and the jail remains a key issue.
The jail was built to hold up to 73 people, but the New York State Department of Corrections has allowed variances of up to 30 people, meaning that up to 103 people can be kept in the jail.
The legislature proposed expanding the jail to 104 cells, but the N.Y. State Department of Corrections has said that 160 cells would be needed.
After some negotiation, the number was brought down to 136 cells.
“If we don’t [expand or] build a jail, we will lose our variances,” said Martha Robertson (D-Dryden).
The county must pay for the inmates in some way. While expanding the jail is estimated to cost $20 million, boarding an inmate out to another county jail costs $105 a day.
According to Vice Chair Michael Lane (D-Dryden), some people on the legislature are ideologically opposed to jails, but having a jail is necessary.
“It is wrong not to build the jail because then the money will be sent to other counties in boarding out costs. The existing jail needs to be upgraded and it is wrong to take our prisoners and send them to other counties; women are more likely to boarded out because they must be guarded separately from men,” Lane said.
He said that if the Legislature chooses not to expand the jail, a student could be arrested and end up being boarded out of the county.
“Renovation and expansion will cost a substantial amount of money, raising taxes, and draining resources from everything else,” said Chairman Tim Joseph (D-Ithaca). He said that jail is a failed response to crime and that alternatives such as drug courts are aimed at turning someone’s life around.
Sheriff Peter Meskill said that boarding out inmates makes it harder for attorneys, service providers, family and friends to visit the inmate.
He said that though inmates in the jail are serving time for different offenses, about 60 percent of the people in jail are waiting to be tried.
Lane also said that it is likely that the Rockefeller Drug laws will be repealed. These laws, enacted in 1973, call for harsh prison terms for even minor drug-related offenses with no discretion from judges even if there is no history of violent behavior.
Most of the people sentenced under these laws are sent to state penitentiaries, but if the laws are changed, it is likely that more people will be serving time in local jails.
Some argue that the Alternatives to Incarceration Program and drug courts should decrease the jail population, however this point has been contested. “We thought that alternative programs would decrease the number of people in jail, but this has not been the case; when the population increased in jails, it also increased in the programs,” said Kathy Leinthall, director of the Department of Probation and Community Justice.
Archived article by Vanessa Hoffman
Sun Staff Writer