December 6, 2021

Many jail solutions already tried here

Photos by Joe McIntyre/staff photographer

Corrections Officer Jamie Babcock, left, trains Officer Brent Thompson on his third day on the job Dec. 18 at the Cortland County Jail complex in Cortland.

In about two years with a $1 million grant, Lucas County in Ohio implemented new ideas to reduce its jail population about 18 percent.

If Cortland County were to implement the same ideas, not much would be accomplished. The county already does almost everything Lucas County implemented.

“There’s not an option out there we haven’t looked at,” Cortland County District Attorney Patrick Perfetti said about searching for new alternatives to incarceration.

Bringing it all together

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

Both counties face identical problems when it comes to their jails — a problem most counties in the nation face.

Lucas County is in the same situation Cortland County is in now. Its jail is overcrowded. It’s 41 years old, has leaks in its roof, broken pipes, multiple maintenance issues and is not in a humane condition for the inmates and employees, according to Lucas County Sheriff John Tharp.

Cortland County’s 26-year-old jail has breaking pipes, a leaky roof, blind spots and at times poor conditions for the inmates and employees.

The Lucas County Jail holds about 403 inmates a day — it was built for 342 beds.

The Cortland County Jail holds about 90 a day –– although initially built to hold 50.

Lucas County also has a population of more than 400,000. Cortland County’s population is about 48,000.

To help reduce its jail population, Lucas County took part in the Safety and Justice Challenge — a program meant to reduce jail populations by providing counties money to implement new ideas and practices, then share with other counties.

Legal books are available for inmates at the Cortland County Jail’s law library in Cortland.

The challenge is supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which has invested $148 million into the program over five years. The funding is distributed to various jurisdictions across America for financial and technical support to evaluate the county’s justice system and find ways to reduce the jail population in that county.

Lucas County was awarded a $1 million grant, implemented ideas — although not all are fully implemented — and has seen results. But when the county’s ideas were presented to Cortland County officials, the answer most of the time was the county already does that.

Pre-trial deflection

The first step of the Safety and Justice Challenge that Lucas County implemented is looking at what options there are for pre-trial deflection.

Lucas County Court of Common Pleas Judge Gene Zmuda said police officers in the county wanted to see a pre-trial program implemented to limit the number of people being taken to jail.

“We want to try to prevent people from coming into jail in the first place,” said Holly Matthews, executive director of the Lucas County criminal justice coordinating council.

One solution was to let people arrested on certain drug or alcohol charges complete a four-hour course to skip a court appearance. Cortland County already has several pre-trial release programs.

Officers write many appearance tickets, Perfetti said. He also looks for ways to get people on pre-trial release when reasonable.

“On felony arrest, either I or one of my assistants is called for a bail recommendation and very often we’re coming up with some kind of non-monetary bail or released on their own cognizance,” Perfetti said.

Individuals on pre-trial release report to a pre-trial coordinator with the Cortland County Probation Department several times a week or even daily, said county Probation Department Director Lisa Cutia.

The probation department does not impose conditions on the individuals, Cutia said, but people are encouraged to engage in evaluations, treatment, employment or educational and vocational programming.

“Pre-trial release allows for individuals to remain in their homes to care for family, maintain employment or school attendance, and participate in counseling or other needed treatment,” she said.

People have to work hard to get into the county jail, Sheriff Mark Helms said, and Perfetti reiterated that statement, due to the pre-trial programs the county offers.

Undersheriff Budd Rigg said the judge will work with people who commit crimes on the same level as petit larcenies so they don’t end up in jail. But people will commit similar crimes four or five times, eventually forcing bail, which frequently means jail time.

Managing based on risk

Before a person is released on pre-trial release in Lucas County, Zmuda said the county has developed a risk analysis for defendants, examining past behavior to assess how much of a risk they may be to the community or to themselves. That person’s level of risk depends on how strictly the county watches that person.

“Once a person is released, we don’t want to over-manage that person,” Zmuda said.

Cortland County already does something like that, too.

When a person is arraigned on a misdemeanor, the district attorney’s office does not have to be there, and the judge determines whether to set bail or release the person, Perfetti said.

The judge considers the person’s criminal history, ties to the community and other factors to determine how likely they are to return to court, he said. The judge will also use an assessment program, which quantifies those factors.

People will receive a call reminding them they have a court date coming up — like getting a call for a doctor’s appointment — to not over-manage them. Breath tests can be set up when needed, too, he added.

“Anyone who thinks incarceration is going to teach someone something is wrong,” Perfetti said.

Diverting inmates to programs

Another step in Lucas County’s plan for the Safety and Justice Challenge was constantly reviewing its jail population.

Daily, law enforcement officials go through 100 pages of reports on who is in the jail and why, Matthews said.

“That has been very effective for us,” she said. “We’ve learned a lot about the system.”

That helped the county connect 126 inmates with services to help stop recidivism, she added.

While Perfetti doesn’t check the Cortland County Jail census every day, he does already review it twice a month.

“And that’s just to make sure anybody who is in there is appropriately detained,” Perfetti said.

Three times this year, he brought a bail application for the release of a defendant where he thought that person wasn’t properly detained.

“I can say very confidently we’re taking very proactive measurers to ensure people that are in there are appropriately detained and we’re taking action to get those who aren’t appropriately detained released,” Perfetti said.

Corrections officers make recommendations for those who should be released or get other services, Perfetti said. When jail Capt. Nick Lynch suggests a program someone in the jail could be released to, Perfetti said he never says “no.”

Lynch has also said there are several agencies and organizations that come into the jail to work with inmates, particularly those with a mental illness.

Coordinated problem practices

Lucas County hired a coordinator to improve collaboration among probation authorities to reduce probation violations resulting in a return to jail.

In Cortland County, about 680 people are supervised on probation. Perfetti said probation is used liberally. He said he has never known a probation officer to file a violation for one missed court appointment. When there is a probation violation, it is usually because there were half a dozen violations.

“Probation is a privilege, some forget that,” Perfetti said. “And if they’re not going to behave on probation supervision, then ultimately there needs to be a consequence otherwise then the courts lose their integrity, my office loses its integrity, the probation office loses its integrity and it all becomes meaningless.”

While there are standard conditions of probation everyone must abide by, special conditions are tailored to the needs of the individual and related to the illegal behavior that the individual engaged in, Cutia said.

“The goal of probation is to help rehabilitate the individual within the community and avoid incarceration,” Cutia said.

Perfetti called the county probation department the “ultimate alternative to incarceration.”

Looking forward

While Lucas County’s methods have helped it reduce its jail population, it still needs to build a new jail. And it is. Lucas County Sheriff John Tharp said the county plans an $80 million jail, paid for by raising taxes.

“We have to do it,” he said.

Cortland County is still determining if it should renovate its current jail or build a new one. It is working with the Vera Institute of Justice to see if there are any more methods the county can implement to limit its jail population.

“Are there things other counties are doing that we’re not doing?” Perfetti asked. “I think the answer to that is clearly, yes.”

However, due to Cortland County’s rural setting, there are some ideas it just can’t do, Perfetti said. But most of the new ideas that have been proposed are already implemented, he added.