State Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie met behind closed doors Monday with law enforcement officers and a colleague influential on prison issues to try to figure out how to cut the cost of incarcerating violators.
Jefferson and Oswego counties are paying $100 per inmate a day to house prisoners 18 from Jefferson County alone at other counties jails because their lockups are not big enough for the numbers coming through the system. St. Lawrence County, too, is close to capacity in its jail, which was built in 2009.
Some of the inmates in county jails are there because they violated the terms of their state parole, either by committing a new crime or by failing to show up for a required meeting. The county law enforcement officials who met with Mrs. Ritchie St. Lawrence County Sheriff Kevin M. Wells, Jefferson County Sheriff John P. Burns and Oswego County Undersheriff Eugene F. Sullivan III say having to house these violators in their already crowded jails is unfairly straining their resources.
After the private meeting in the Dulles State Office Building, Mrs. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, and state Sen. Michael F. Nozzolio, R-Seneca Falls, offered potential solutions that could give the county officials some relief but are unlikely to become a reality. Mr. Nozzolio chairs the Senates Crime and Corrections Committee.
The state needs to pick up the slack and take those state inmates back to the facility where they belong, Mrs. Ritchie said.
One of the ideas Mrs. Ritchie offered was to put state parole violators held in county jails at state facilities. Watertown Correctional Facility has surplus space in a dorm that is no longer used.
But Michael H. LaDue, vice president of the state union for corrections lieutenants, who was not part of Mrs. Ritchies meeting, later called that plan unworkable.
We dont have the physical structure to separate (parole violators) from the general population, Mr. LaDue said.
Parole violators have already spent time in state prison, but some are placed back into a county jail for technical offenses such as failing to report to their parole officer.
Mrs. Ritchies proposal would not eliminate Jefferson Countys problem, though it would alleviate it. Among the 18 inmates Jefferson County is paying to house in other jails, eight are parole violators.
Jefferson County taxpayers foot a $1 million annual bill because of jail overcrowding, according to Mr. Burns. The sheriff based that estimate on the $100 daily up-front cost for each prisoner, plus transportation, overtime and other expenses. He has pushed the county Board of Legislators to expand the jail.
The county jails could also save money by requiring inmates to provide a co-payment for medical service, which they do not have to pay now.
Mrs. Ritchie has also introduced legislation that would require the state to pick up parole violators within 10 days. According to a letter Department of Corrections and Community Supervision Commissioner Brian Fischer wrote to Mrs. Ritchie about jail overcrowding, the parole violation court process takes an average of 44 days in Oswego, Jefferson and St. Lawrence counties.
Mr. Nozzolio said filling empty state-prison beds with parole violators was an excellent idea.
Democrat Amy M. Tresidder, Mrs. Ritchies Nov. 6 opponent, said shes familiar with the problem of jail overcrowding. She is an Oswego County legislator, representing the city of Oswego.
She said she would not support a plan to put parole violators who committed local crimes in state prisons, as Mrs. Ritchie has suggested.
You cant release them until theyve answered to those charges locally, Mrs. Tresidder said.
She was undecided about other aspects of the proposal, saying many questions, such as separating prisoners, remained unanswered.
Mrs. Tresidder said counties should look at alternatives to incarceration.
Are we punishing or protecting? If were punishing, its going to cost us a lot of money to do so, she said.
She also chided Mrs. Ritchie for holding the meeting behind closed doors.
Sarah V. Compo, Mrs. Ritchies spokeswoman, said the media were not allowed to sit in on the meeting to ensure a frank discussion.
Said Mrs. Tresidder: Who was at this meeting that needed privacy? I dont understand this. A public meeting is not supposed to be closed. That bothers me.
Typically, the political battles over jails and prisons have to do with the states closing prisons. But the state didnt close any prisons in 2012 after closing several none in Mrs. Ritchies district in 2011.
Mr. Nozzolio said he wasnt sure whether the state would move to close more prisons in its upcoming budget, which will be released in the early weeks of 2013.
Its difficult to say right now. We dont know what the census populations will bring, he said. I can say this: As far as this region, Senator Ritchies advocacy has made a difference.