County uses data to create opportunities

With the numbers, the county received a significant grant

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Collecting data might just save the county money, and some county residents their future. Tompkins County only started collecting data on recidivism rates at the county jail last year but that information is already being put to good use.


For years Tompkins County has been talking about lowering the population of the county jail, and many of the initiatives utilized to further this goal are alternatives to incarceration programs, which can come in many forms. But without collecting recidivism data, it was unclear which programs were really working and which were not. Now, a year after the county decided how it would define recidivism and where it would find the necessary information, that data is already creating a cascade of opportunities.


David Sanders is the Criminal Justice Coordinator for County Administration and in charge of collecting the necessary data and finding the best way to utilize it.


“If we don’t look at crime and arrests and the safety of the community, people may not buy into alternatives to incarceration,” Sanders said. “So, we start with a base. Which is: what do our crime stats look like, what does our arrest record look like, what are the ins and outs of those particular areas – because we know that victimization is usually three times higher than crime rate, meaning for every crime reported, two aren’t – so we want to look into those particular areas.”


With a base to work from the data can now be used to improve specific areas and promote cross-systems collaboration. Sanders explained that the county chose to focus on two measurements of recidivism, rebookings and revocation, because the data was easy to access and both came from the jail. In the future, he would like to expand the collection to the areas of re-arrest, reconviction, and reincarceration, but these would take a lot more coordination with other law enforcement entities including the state police and Ithaca Police Department.


Since the county began collecting recidivism data last year, Sanders applied for, and received, a federal grant from the Samhsa’s Gains Center for Behavioral Health and Justice Transformation to develop an integrated strategy to identify and respond to what people with mental illness and substance abuse issues need when they come in contact with the criminal justice system. The grant wouldn’t have happened, Sanders said, if he hadn’t had the data that the center was looking for. Tompkins County is only one of 10 communities nation-wide to receive the grant.


“We’re going to talk about the criminal justice system and then how folks from jail get into substance abuse and mental health programs, and how can we do this seamlessly so there’s no gaps,” Sanders said.


The grant will basically create a map of what the system looks like now and what the outcomes are. With that information, connections across the system can be made that aren’t being made now. With the map, Sanders said, it will be easier to get more grants for similar projects in the future.


Tompkins County has multiple organizations and committees working to help lower the jail population, facilitate alternatives to incarceration programs, and assist formerly incarcerated people transition back to life outside of jail. While this is a blessing for the population being helped, it can make it difficult to pinpoint which programs are most effective to reducing recidivism rates and lowering the jail population.


“We’re doing such a great job of bringing this [the jail population] down, that you can’t say one program contributed to that,” Sanders said. “A multitude of efforts contributed.”


Expensive board-outs and a negative reaction from the community to a proposed $900,000 jail expansion led the county to invest more into alternatives to incarceration, and created an environment for organizations that promote alternatives programs. A county-commissioned study of alternatives to a jail expansion project found multiple ways, across the criminal justice system, to lower the jail population. Now it’s time to hone in on what’s working and where to invest more in the future.


Steady employment for formerly incarcerated individuals is one of the best ways to reduce recidivism and is often the focus of alternatives to incarceration programs. On March 20, the second annual Beyond the Box Reentry Job fair will be held at the Hotel Ithaca starting at 10 a.m. Last year’s fair was held just as the county was debating how it wanted to define recidivism. The fair is organized by the Ultimate Reentry Opportunity (URO) and community partners and seeks to connect employers with formerly incarcerated individuals looking for jobs.


This year, the fair will be renamed in honor of Gino Bush, a local criminal justice and civil rights activist who passed away last year.


“The work of Ultimate Reentry and mentoring has been in the image of what Gino had done in the past,” said Taili Mugambee, Program Director at URO.
This year’s fair already has more registered employers tabling at the event. While last year was solely a job fair, this year the event will be expanding to include more educational components for both employers and potential employees. Ithaca College President Shirley Collado will be the keynote speaker, and Sanders will also be making a presentation.


Among the topics that will be covered are how to make the recruiting, hiring, and retaining processes more equitable and inclusive to this specific population.


“We know that there is over 100 million people across the country with criminal records, and we know that about 7,000,000 are added to that each year, so this is a demographic that the employment folks are going to have to reckon with,” Mugambee said.


Like Sander’s goal of using data to create collaborative efforts to lower recidivism, Mugambee said the fair will also be a place to create collaboration and share ideas about how to work together to support the population of individuals who have been formerly incarcerated. While the focus is employment, the fair will also be a place for employers to meet with local service providers to better understand what resources and support are available not only to their employees but to them.

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