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Burns asks legislators to consider temporary jail expansion

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Jefferson County Sheriff John P. Burns asked county legislators Tuesday night to consider easing overcrowding at the jail by building a temporary addition to the facility for $7.7 million.

While legislators said the idea could have merit, it’s the state that will have final say.

“It’s well worth looking into,” said Legislator Philip N. Reed, R-Fishers Landing, the chairman of the General Services Committee.

Right now, the Sheriff’s Department pays $1 million a year to other counties, like Clinton, Essex and Albany, to house inmates there because there isn’t enough room at Jefferson County’s facility. There are about 30 inmates “outboarded” right now, Mr. Burns said.

But legislators have balked at the idea of permanently expanding the jail, because of the cost and cyclical nature of jail overcrowding.

A 90-bed temporary facility would help ease the overcrowding, while costing less than building a new jail and also possibly costing less than outboarding inmates. The structure, which would be built by a private company, could last for 15 years, and is just as secure as a permanent facility, Mr. Burns said. The county would have to hire more workers to staff the facility.

If the state allows Jefferson County to build a temporary jail expansion, it would be the first county in the state to do so, Mr. Burns said. Some jails in Virginia have used the temporary facilities, he said.

Mr. Burns made no secret of the fact that he believes the county should permanently expand its facility. He said that could cost $12 million to $16 million.

County legislators still are noncommittal about the idea of a permanent structure — Mr. Reed said the $2.4 million in annual costs to build a permanent expansion would eclipse the $1 million annually that the county is paying for other facilities to house its inmates.

Unlike state prisons, which can hold prisoners for many years or even life sentences, county jails typically hold convicts for less than a year or hold defendants as they make their way through the justice system.

Changes to the state’s Rockefeller-era drug laws have driven more inmates through the county’s jail, and fewer through the state’s prisons, Mr. Reed said. Legislators are hoping that the state will allow the county to ship its excess prisoners to Watertown Correctional Facility, which has beds available due to dwindling state prison populations. Mr. Reed said that he hasn’t had discussions with the state on the matter.

The committee took no action Tuesday night on Mr. Burns’s presentation. It’s possible that the Board of Legislators will convene a special temporary committee that aims to accomplish specific tasks — called an ad hoc committee — to discuss putting up a temporary structure.

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