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The Legislature’s special Jail Study Committee heard from District Attorney Matt Van Houten and from Angela Sullivan, executive director of the Alcohol and Drug Council of Tompkins County, as it continued its examination of factors contributing to capacity issues at the Tompkins County Jail.
The County Legislature initiated the jail study process last fall, after the New York State Commission of Correction announced its intent to revoke the Jail’s long-standing 18-bed variance that has allowed the Jail to operate above its 82-bed capacity. While the variance has been temporarily reinstated, the action has forced the County to consider how to respond, including the possibility of building additional jail capacity. Committee chair Rich John stressed again tonight that there has been no decision made to expand the Jail.
In his report to the committee, District Attorney Van Houten observed that there are many factors in the criminal justice system that affect Jail population, including such elements as the pre-sentence population, bail practices, the effective use of alternatives-to-incarceration, and the availability of other services. He said he sees the role of his office is “to effect justice and promote public safety,” and that it is in the long-term interest of public safety in this community to address the issues that lead to illegal behavior.
Noting that the purpose of bail is to ensure the defendant’s appearance in court, and while there are instances in which a judge has no alternative but to set bail, Mr. Van Houten said he believes there should be the presumption of release without bail (or under Probation supervision) at arraignment on most charges, such as misdemeanors, and said he will be speaking with judges on this issue. Voicing his full support of incarceration alternatives, he said, “We’re always going to need a jail,” but that there are compelling arguments to spend resources on services, rather than for expanding the Jail.
Alcohol and Drug Council director Sullivan said her organization’s philosophy is to prevent the need for detoxification in the Jail, and briefed the committee on the Council’s proposal for a local community-based residential detox/stabilization unit, which would be licensed by the State Office of Alcohol and Substance Abuse Services (OASIS). Sullivan said, “Tompkins County needs a simple path to recovery that is stigma-free.” The 20-to-25-bed facility proposed could eventually be expanded to 40-45 beds, based on the space available, with the goal to have the facility in operation 12 months after receiving approval from the State. D.A. Van Houten said the presence of a local detox unit would certainly affect the jail population, and County Assigned Counsel Program coordinator Julia Hughes called such a facility a top priority for local defense attorneys.