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County saves by paying to board inmates elsewhere, data show

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Jefferson County is actually saving money by paying other counties to board the inmates it doesn’t have room to house.

So says county Legislator Philip N. Reed, R-Fishers Landing, chairman of the General Services Committee, which oversees the Sheriff’s Department’s budget, including the county jail.

Or, if the county is not actually saving money through the practice, it at least is breaking even.

That’s the story the numbers tell, according to a spreadsheet prepared by county budget analyst Gregory C. Hudson based on corrections information for the last two years compiled by Sheriff John P. Burns.

According to the spreadsheet, the average daily cost of keeping an inmate in Jefferson County is $124.40, while the cost of boarding an inmate elsewhere is $90.46 — a savings of almost $34 per inmate per day.

The data contradict the sheriff’s argument in the long debate over jail crowding that the cost to Jefferson County taxpayers is $1 million annually.

Mr. Burns said the numbers don’t take into account the human cost of ferrying inmates back and forth to Albany County every day on the only reliably clear route during this time of year.

Every time a corrections officer leaves the building, another one has to come in to take his or her place, resulting in a revolving door of fatigued officers and increased sick time, according to Mr. Burns.

As of Friday, the county had 60 inmates housed out, with 54 in Albany County and six in Lewis County. The jail has a capacity of 144 inmates.

“I can’t emphasize enough ... they’re looking at dollars and cents. I’m talking about fatigue on these officers. You can’t run people 24/7,” Mr. Burns said.

Mr. Burns has long advocated for an addition to the jail, which was built with expansion in mind.

Based on a study in 2008, the construction cost of building an addition was estimated to be $12,268,000. Bonded over 15 years, the annual cost to the county would be $1,182,000.

Based on a 3 percent inflation rate, in 2013 dollars that amount would be $1,340,000. And that’s not counting the cost of additional labor a jail holding potentially 64 additional inmates would require.

According to the study, the jail’s staff would have to increase by 10 people to accommodate the additional inmates — an average annual expense of $765,296 in 2013 dollars.

An addition would increase the daily cost of housing to $141.85 per inmate per day.

Mr. Burns said that extra cost could be offset by money made by boarding inmates from other counties.

Mr. Reed has dismissed that notion as “speculation” and has said it is not his job to gamble with taxpayers’ money.

“I don’t know of too many instances in which government has been able to make money,” he said.

In the 10 years between 1996 and 2005, before jail overcrowding became an issue, the county made an average of more than $270,000.00 annually by boarding inmates from other counties and agencies. Such revenue would ostensibly reduce the year-to-year cost of adding on to the jail by a quarter of a million dollars presuming the jail were built large enough to handle outside inmates.

“There’s no guarantee of that revenue,” Mr. Reed said. “There’s a lot of variables in the inboarding piece of it.”

Indeed, the revenue fluctuated greatly, from a high of $568,376 in 1997 to a low of $53,084 in 2003 and back up to $273,240 in 2005.

A neighboring county’s experience offers a cautionary tale.

In 2009, St. Lawrence County, facing a similar problem with jail overcrowding, cut the ribbon on a new facility for 164 inmates that was expected to be big enough to accommodate boarders from other counties. But by 2012, the new jail was already at or near capacity and the county was resorting to double-bunking, boarding some inmates in other counties or relying on the Probation Department to ease problems created by the excess population.

Mr. Burns has said St. Lawrence County should have built a bigger facility.

In lieu of construction, Mr. Reed is advocating for innovation in the corrections business and is seeking opportunities to work with state officials to use space he said is just sitting vacant at prisons such as the Watertown Correctional Facility. Housing county inmates at state prisons is illegal.

Mr. Reed has said that shouldn’t preclude the county from participating in a pilot program to use all available space for housing inmates.

“Everything should be on the table,” he said.

Mr. Reed said the county has made overtures to state officials about the issue but has never heard a response.

Mr. Burns has characterized those suggestions as impractical in the past.

Mr. Reed has argued the state is obligated to make resources available because offenders who would have previously gone to state prison have landed in the county jail because of amendments to the Rockefeller drug laws.

Kristyna S. Mills, Jefferson County chief assistant district attorney, said with changes to the laws some repeat felons may be sentenced to local time instead of state prison, but she didn’t think it was the norm.

Mrs. Mills said the district attorney’s office’s policies have not changed and offenders charged with a second felony are usually sent to state prison.

However, the combination of increased population in the area and the repeal of the Rockefeller drug laws could contribute to jail overcrowding, Mrs. Mills said.

Some 75 percent of inmates in the county’s custody are unsentenced, according to Mr. Burns. Many of them are awaiting trial and can’t make bail.

Mr. Burns said in the 10 years he has been sheriff, only six legislators have visited the jail. He said he can count on one hand the times County Administrator Robert F. Hagemann has been there.

“I’d love to have them come down and spend one shift in the jail,” he said. “They’d likely have a different opinion about things.”

Mr. Reed said the county Board of Legislators has always supported the Sheriff’s Department whenever it has needed anything, including a car leasing program, partnering on state and federal grants for various projects and supporting the K-9 program.

“What hasn’t the board supported?” Mr. Reed asked. “And I’m not saying the board will not ever support the jail, but in these economic times we owe it to the taxpayer to look at every option possible.”

“It shouldn’t be us against them,” he said. “It should be about everybody from the state on down working to get the best deal possible for taxpayers and for everybody involved.”

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