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Jefferson County Sheriff and Legislature differ on overcrowding solutions

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Sheriff John P. Burns and the Jefferson County Legislature are butting heads again — this time about overcrowding at the county jail.

Last week, 65 prisoners were sent to other jails because there was no room for them at the county’s facility. Mr. Burns called it a record, saying it was the most he could ever remember housing out.

Corrections officers are paid time and a half for transportation duties. In 2012, outboarding inmates cost the county more than $850,000.

And that’s not counting the fatigue that the officers are feeling as a result of moving inmates all over the state.

Many inmates are sent to Albany County — a 3-hour, 170-mile trip each way. The trips are stressful because of weather and security concerns.

“Every time we take an inmate out of this facility, it is a security breach,” Mr. Burns said.

He said that expanding the jail would reduce stress on corrections officers and help offset costs by housing inmates from other counties and Fort Drum.

“There are legislators that certainly enjoy the economic boom that we see here but don’t want to pay for services,” Mr. Burns said.

Legislator Philip N. Reed Sr., R-Fishers Landing, chairman of the Jefferson County Board of Legislators General Services Committee, which oversees the sheriff’s budget, said that his first responsibility is to the taxpayers.

He and other legislators are balking at the cost of expanding the jail, which would add an estimated $2 million to the county’s annual budget for 15 years, according to a study commissioned by the county.

That annual cost would equal almost a 5 percent increase in the tax levy, according to Gregory C. Hudson, county information technology director.

Mr. Reed said he couldn’t justify spending that kind of money when there are people in jeopardy of losing their homes. Instead, he is asking that the county exhaust all other possibilities before committing to the project.

“We’re ready to come to the table and we would welcome the state,” he said.

Both Mr. Reed and Mr. Burns acknowledge that part of the overcrowding issue is the increasing number of inmates released from state prison who end up in county facilities because of parole violations.

“You violate state parole, you should go back to state prison,” Mr. Burns said.

State Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, is sponsoring a bill to try to alleviate that problem. It would require parole violators to be transferred to a state correctional facility within 10 days.

It passed the Senate twice but was not picked up in the Assembly. This year, the bill is being sponsored by Assemblywoman Aileen M. Gunther, D-Forestburgh.

The bill is facing a hearing campaign next Wednesday.

“This is a huge opportunity for the state to provide some mandate relief to the county by opening up the Watertown facility,” Mrs. Ritchie said.

The Watertown Correctional Facility at Dry Hill is a transportation hub and recently closed two dormitories that could be back up and running shortly, Mrs. Ritchie said, making it an ideal place to house parole violators instead of in Jefferson or Oswego counties, where space is at a premium.

The state already is required to take custody of inmates sentenced to state prison terms within 10 days and is generally pretty good about doing so, according to Mr. Burns.

Mr. Reed has proposed that state facilities take on county inmates who are not parole violators as well.

It is a suggestion that Mr. Burns views with skepticism.

“It cannot be done. It is illegal,” he said, adding that state corrections officers are paid more than county officers and that the arrangement would end up costing the county money.

But that answer didn’t placate Mr. Reed, who said that he is tired of hearing that it can’t be done.

“Everything should be on the table,” he said. Part of his argument is that the repeal of the Rockefeller drug laws has landed many criminals in county lockup who previously would have been sentenced to state prison.

“Somebody made their problem our problem,” Mr. Reed said. As for the increased cost, he said, the specifics of an arrangement with the state are hard to determine without an open exchange of information.

He acknowledged that the jail eventually may be expanded if the population in the county continues to grow.

“Shipping people around the state isn’t a long-term plan,” he said.

But, with stagnant construction costs in a downturn economy, Mr. Reed said, the Legislature must wait for a more opportune moment to break ground.

According to Mr. Burns, the cost of the expansion only increases the longer legislators wait.

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