Decarcerate Tompkins won a major victory in Ithaca when the Center for Governmental Research (CGR) decided this past July that it did not need to expand the Tompkins County Jail and instead would invest in local alternatives to incarceration. The Ithaca community organization Decarcerate Tompkins is working hard to facilitate coordination between mental health services professionals, drug rehabilitation services, the county sheriff, and the Ithaca Police Department in order to keep the jail population below expansion level through alternatives to incarceration.
Barbara Regenspan, a retired Colgate University professor, the current creative writing teacher at New Roots, and Decarcerate Tompkins activist, stated, “If you build more cells, you will fill them. . . . We need a police force that doesn’t want to put people in jail, [but] wants to protect public safety through a deeper understanding of what makes people safe.”
Drug use and mental illness tend to have more dramatic effects among people of lower socioeconomic status, and Decarcerate Tompkins is working to decriminalize mental illness and drug addiction. “Many people whose basic problems are mental illness or drug addiction need extensive services in the community, not in the jail,” explained Regenspan. To this end, Decarcerate Tompkins is working with Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, or LEAD, a program meant to help people exit a cycle of nonviolent addiction-related crimes. The Ithaca LEAD plan focuses on the idea that the job of the police is not necessarily to make arrests, and that large numbers of arrests for petty drug-related crimes (for example, someone who commits a robbery in order to obtain money to buy drugs) will not solve the city’s drug and opioid problem. LEAD’s Ithaca Plan stated, “We cannot arrest our way out of the drug problem.”
The long-term goal of Decarcerate Tompkins is to make the jail and prison cells obsolete. “We need alternatives to mass incarceration,” Regenspan said. “A very long-term goal is dismembering the systems of mass incarceration, which are racist and classist.” According to Regenspan, people of color make up the vast majority of the prison population because the systems of oppression make many people live without what they need to survive. One important way Regenspan said this could be accomplished is for the nation to institute a guaranteed basic income.
But the group’s goal in the immediate timeframe, according to Regenspan, is to “work with existing organizations in Tompkins County to develop every possible alternative to mass incarceration.” Right now, in addition to promoting coordination between agencies, this includes challenging the bail system. Poor people are often stuck in jail due to their inability to pay bail, which is unfair, said Regenspan. Decarcerate Tompkins “wants to make sure bail is only used in cases where someone is a danger to the community, which are not most mental health and drug-related cases.” As an alternative to jail time, Decarcerate Tompkins is working to provide drug rehabilitation programs and mental health programs in the community. “We need people to understand that the dynamics of community safety means everyone has the opportunity to live a decent life.”
When asked her opinion on fighting racism in general in the community, Regenspan said, “Ithaca has a vocal commitment to fighting against racism.” She went on to say, however, that while vocal commitment is a good start, “Globally, we need to challenge the power of extreme concentration of wealth among relatively few people.” Not having access to decent housing impacts a person’s ability to keep a stable job and build a stable life, for example, which is a larger systemic problem. Decarcerate Tompkins works not only to have a local influence but also to “be part of a worldwide conversation about ending mass incarceration.”
Rich John, recently elected as a Tompkins County Legislator, is the head of the Jail Study Committee. To enforce the decision by the Center for Governmental Research (CGR) and keep the incarcerated population low enough to neither expand nor build a new jail, John is left with alternative options such as supporting affordable housing, drug rehabilitation, and mental health services.