Assemblymember Anna Kelles’ Town Hall Focused on Community Safety, Data and Solutions

We all deserve to feel safe. This was the starting premise of the February 2 Virtual Town Hall held by Assemblymember Anna Kelles with the Vera Institute of Justice, who were joined by a panel of leaders from Tompkins and Cortland counties in the community conversation on public safety. The discussion focused on exploring how our communities can become safer by breaking cycles of crime through proven, data-informed measures, not just reacting to crime after it happens. The town hall was one of several conversations that Vera staff engaged in over a three-day visit to Tompkins and Cortland Counties, meeting also with law enforcement and elected officials from both counties as well as leading an in-depth workshop with community leaders.

Ben Heller, senior program associate at Vera, led the presentation portion of the town hall, describing the cycle that can ensue when a person experiences instability in their housing or employment, or lacking access to resources, such as mental health services, and substance abuse treatment. This instability can lead to an arrest, then jail, and for the majority of people, an eventual release. But if incarcerated people are released back into similar or worse situations of instability, the cycle will begin again.

Jullian Harris-Calvin, director of the Greater Justice New York program at the Vera Institute, facilitated the panel discussion, exploring the instability the panelists have witnessed in our community and the solutions that have been effective.

Lisa Hoeschle, Executive Director of Family Counseling Services of Cortland County: “We’re right now experiencing a significant pandemic, and it’s not COVID. It’s despair among our residents. We don’t provide adequate housing opportunities. People are living in poverty with very limited access to health care. We’re waiting until people are incarcerated to provide needed access to mental health treatment.”

Derek Osborne, Tompkins County Sheriff: “In my 24 years in law enforcement, I now clearly see the responsibility that needs to be had on the front end of an arrest - and on the back end. Inmates that are currently housed at my facility, no doubt, have severe drug addiction issues, are suffering economically or have mental health issues. Or have a combination of all three. We’re being irresponsible if we’re not trying to correct these issues before an arrest happens.”

Assemblymember Kelles noted that while the rhetoric around safety has become politicized, “What does the actual data say about crime? And are we investing in areas that would reduce the causes that lead to people feeling unsafe?”

According to data compiled by the Office of Court Administration and the Department of Criminal Justice Services, there has been an increase in crime over the last three years of the COVID pandemic, but the crime increase in New York has been lower in the last three years compared to the average of the entire country. Rearrest rates have decreased since 2019, even with the changes to bail reform. The Vera Institute data shows that as of 2021, in Tompkins County, 97% of people released through bail reform were not rearrested on violent felony charges. In Cortland County, 96% were not rearrested on violent felony charges.

Cindy Wilcox, Executive Director of the Human Services Coalition in Tompkins County: “Collaborations and partnerships in human service organizations strengthened during COVID as we had to come together to meet a high demand in need. Those collaborations are staying strong, and we can see the collective impact of working together. But impactful services do take a lot of financial investment; it takes a lot of human resource investment. But the return on that investment is large.”

Rev. Nathaniel Wright, Senior Pastor, Calvary Baptist Church of Ithaca: “One of the things that we continue to see is the need to invest in people of all ages in all walks of life. The more unstable someone’s life and circumstances are, the more likely they are to be involved in criminal activity.”

Seth Peacock, Ithaca City Court Judge: “The first thing I try to do is see everybody who comes before me. It’s a simple thing. I try to build hope. I often ask, ‘Who are you trying to be? Is this the person you are trying to be?’ And I have a lot of tools at my disposal to balance accountability and services.”

Assemblymember Kelles remains committed to continuing and furthering this conversation, both listening to constituents’ concerns, and sharing perspectives grounded in shared fundamental values including safe homes and communities; innocent until proven guilty; equal treatment regardless of wealth; and access to opportunity.

A recording of the full town hall is available online.