December 1, 2021

Lack of resources hinder ability for more services

Photos by Joe McIntyre/staff photographer

Sheriff's Corrections Officer Sgt. Rob Ganoung, left, and corrections officer Angela Cavanagh, right, talk about their average day on the job Wednesday at the Cortland County Jail complex in Cortland.

The Vera Institute of Justice is in the midst of working with Cortland County officials to identify how the county can reduce the population in the county jail.

However, Cortland County officials say they have exhausted all options to reducing the Cortland County Jail population and provide more alternatives to incarceration.

Several ideas have been discussed. Some implemented. Some already in place. And some can’t be done right now.

Bringing it all together

This is the second part in reporter Nick Graziano’s five-part piece on the Cortland County Jail. To view all the parts, click here.

The efforts to keep people out of the jail has, at best, limited the increase in the jail population. The jail’s average daily population has bubbled up to about 90 or more people a day in 2017 from 65 a day in 2013, even as more people are released without bail while awaiting adjudication of their cases.

The county Legislature approved earlier this year working with Vera, which is donating its expertise to see how the county might keep people out of jail.

“We’re waiting until we’ve finished our interviews with county stakeholders, which we started on our first visit in November and will continue during our second visit in the new year, and have looked at the data thoroughly before making any recommendations about what the county should be working on,” Insha Rahman, program director for Vera, said in an email.

The county already has three specialty courts — or “boutique courts,” as Cortland County Judge Julie Campbell called them: treatment court, integrated domestic violence court and youth court.

“They provide opportunities to avoid jail through programming,” Campbell said.

The youth court was recently added, by state mandate, for the state’s plan to divert 16- and 17-year-old criminal defendants from the adult justice system. Campbell and Cortland County Judge David Alexander run the youth court. Campbell said 20 hours of training was required to do so.

She also runs the integrated domestic violence court.

While the special courts can be beneficial to some, more resources would be needed to add more, Campbell said.

District Attorney Patrick Perfetti echoed her comments. If more courts were added, not only would they need more resources, he would also need at least one more attorney.

He said he’s been approached about his thoughts on adding more specialty courts, such as a mental health court or veterans’ court, because other counties have them.

“I think there is something to be said for a judge and court staff that might have special training in dealing with people who are inflicted with mental health issues,” Perfetti said. There could be an argument made in the community there is a need for one.

However, Perfetti said, once the drug court was instituted, the only additional judicial resource the county got was a drug treatment court coordinator.

The city judge who handles the drug treatment court also handles the civil term court, landlord and tenant court and criminal term court in the city, Perfetti said — a time consuming task.

Drug treatment court can take up two to three hours of an attorney’s time during the week, Perfetti said. His office also needs to consent to anyone entering drug treatment court.

“It is very time consuming,” Perfetti said. “Not that it’s not worth the time, which it is. I didn’t get any additional resources to support that.”

Perfetti said he could support new specialty courts if the state provided more resources for them — such as support staff for the district attorney’s and public defender’s offices and more judges for the new courts. Add training to that, too, he said.

“There may not be enough hours in the day for more ’boutique courts,’ ” Campbell said.

There are other ideas officials in the county would like to consider, Perfetti said, but the issue comes back to resources and costs. One example he gave is a homeless shelter or mental health center.

“Jails are expensive; homeless shelters are expensive, too,” Perfetti said.

For more than 20 years the Cortland County Legislature hasn’t been able to decide whether it should built a new jail or renovate the current jail. A new jail could cost about $50 million or more, and renovating the current jail and adding more space could cost about the same, depending on the plan.

Cortland County Sheriff Mark Helms said the Sheriff Office’s shortcoming is dealing with the current jail facility.

The 26-year-old jail has 57 beds, but routinely houses 90 or more inmates, with a special permit for a 30-bed dormitory and a three-bed state variance. As of Monday, there were 70 inmates in the jail and none boarded out. However, the population usually decreases around the holiday and increases again after.

In a perfect world, Helms said a homeless shelter and mental health center could help the county.

“It would be good to have a place to take people (rather than taking them to jail),” Helms said. However, even if there were both centers, they wouldn’t solve his problems.

About 10 to 20 percent of the jail population is made up of inmates with some kind of mental illness. If you take all of them out of the jail, it is still overcrowded.

The jail was also not designed to house women, yet typically is responsible for 18 women, said Undersheriff Budd Rigg. The jail used to board women in other counties, but as the population of women in jails grew across the state there was nowhere to bring them. Rigg said a male unit had to be closed to accommodate them, then two.

The jail also has an issue finding space for people with medical issues. If someone has a sleeping disorder and a doctor requires them to wear a breathing mask — which plugs into an outlet to work — Helms said he has to figure out how to make that work, so the device can’t be used as a weapon.

“Look, we’re just out of space,” Helms said. “It’s really my hardest fight.”

The jail already provides a number of services to help inmates and stop recidivism, including for mental health, in the jail, but to do more there needs to be more room, Helms said.

“We have to do something different in the future with the (current) facility,” Helms said. “It’s not just inmate numbers. If you want different capabilities and to help more people, we really need the space.”

At the moment, he said he is trying to figure out how to do that with the means he has.

“Everything comes down to money,” Helms said.