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St. Lawrence County justice court study unveiled


RUSSELL — A study of potential court consolidation in three St. Lawrence County towns adds a lot of information to the discussion of streamlining justice courts, but probably will not result in immediate changes because of the disparity between town and county savings.

“It seems like the cost is to the towns and the savings to the county,” Legislator Frederick S. Morrill, D-DeKalb Junction, said at a public session Tuesday in Russell Town Hall.

“It just seems like why would the towns want to spend a half million or more when they see very little savings? I don’t know what the solution is, but I can see how difficult it would be to get there.”

A look at the feasibility of consolidating justice courts in the towns of Edwards, Hermon and Russell was paid for by a state Local Government Efficiency Grant to review options that might save money while not damaging the judicial process.

“There’s been a big push the last 10 years for governments to work together,” said Benjamin H. Syden, director of planning with Laberge Group, Albany, which performed the study. “What we wanted to do is take a fresh look.”

While the study looks at specific towns, it also provides a general blueprint.

“Is there a better way of doing it? Is there a way to bring justice sooner?” said Heidi J. Ames, a county planner. “The purpose of the study is not to provide recommendations. Instead, it’s a series of options for any number of towns in New York state. Any information presented will help towns make informed decisions.”

The concept of combining some of the county’s 34 town and village courts could mean savings in terms of fewer trips and time spent for sheriff’s deputies, state police, assistant district attorneys, public defenders and other lawyers. Time not spent in court also could mean other work is accomplished, county Public Defender Stephen D. Button said.

“I do believe the savings could be fairly significant,” Mr. Button said. “If you have six people and eight courts going on at the same time, you’ve got two courts where we have a problem.”

However, most towns run their justice courts on a shoestring budget, so consolidation or the sharing of services, if it means new or larger courtrooms, could mean substantial costs.

A stand-alone joint facility with a 60-person-capacity courtroom would cost an estimated $1 million, according to the study. A new 90-person-capacity facility for joint use would cost an estimated $1.5 million.

Edwards and Russell have no pressing need to change how their courts operate. Hermon is moving its town offices — including its court — into the former fire hall, which was donated. The town will fix the roof and has a $30,000 grant through the state court system that will help with the cost of renovation, Supervisor Kelly J. Reed said.

The building has room for another court if an adjacent town is interested, she said.

Other alternatives identified in the study include regional courts, towns sharing facilities without merger, reducing the number of judges from two to one, having a single justice court for towns with contiguous borders with a judge elected from each town, or adjacent towns jointly electing a justice.

Pressing the state for videoconferencing of certain court proceedings also could reduce the expense of traveling to individual courts, but efforts to allow it routinely die in the Assembly, Sheriff Kevin M. Wells said.

“This makes no sense in today’s age,” he said. “The jail is prepared. The courts are prepared, or could be.”

Part of the reason for the Assembly’s reluctance is that proponents of indigent defense think it’s important that defendants have an attorney present with them for better representation, Mr. Button said.

The 100-page study will appear on the county and town of Russell websites and will be discussed further by county legislators.

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