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Jail overcrowding approaches a tipping point


Sgt. John P. Gregory is responsible for 16 to 18 corrections officers and 185 inmates at the Metro-Jefferson Public Safety Building. Forty-five of the prisoners are not even under his roof. They are at a handful of jails across the state.

While New York is trumpeting a large reduction in prisoners at state facilities, county jails in the north country and across the state are experiencing the opposite effect: many do not have room for the inmates they are receiving.

In a statement about the closure of four correctional facilities in the state released by the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision in July, the state boasted a 24 percent decline in prison population since its height in 1999.

The reduction is credited to a 15 percent decrease in the state crime rate over the past 10 years, a 13 percent reduction in the number of violent crimes and a reduction in the number of people sentenced to prison for drug offenses.

At the same time, counties across the state are trying to figure out why their jails are at the bursting point.

The reason is not clear, though the phenomenon is well documented. The New York State Association of Counties has been tracking its development for 10 years.

“From a county perspective, we are seeing dramatic decreases in state prison population at the same time we are seeing increases in county jail populations,” said Mark F. LaVigne, deputy director of NYSAC. “Why is that? There are lots of questions to be asked and answered at the state level ... but it is a growing cost for county taxpayers.”

In the north country, the issue is most prevalent and longstanding in Jefferson County.

tough on staff, inmates

On the days when Sgt. Gregory has to send inmates out of the jail — which happens at least twice a week — it takes him seven hours to complete the process.

First he looks at the roster of inmates and tries to identify those who are the best qualified to go — those inmates who do not have upcoming court dates or need medical or psychological attention.

Then he has to make a round of calls throughout the state to try to find another facility willing to take his charges. Once he finds a spot for his inmates, he has to complete paperwork clearing their transfer before making another round of calls to find corrections officers willing to work overtime to transport the inmates.

“It’s rather time consuming,” Sgt. Gregory said.

The experience is different for the inmates.

Ryan P. Clement, 27, and Damion R. Steele, 44, are both inmates committed to the Jefferson County jail who have spent a significant amount of their time at other facilities in the state.

Mr. Clement, who is waiting to be sentenced to a state drug treatment program after violating the terms of his contract with Jefferson County Drug Court, spent four months in Albany County after being sent to jail in October.

“I haven’t enjoyed it,” he said, adding that he gets depressed being so far away from his family, who visit him regularly in Watertown. He also said that being outboarded slows down the court system and keeps him from his ultimate goal: getting his life back together and helping to raise his 6-year-old daughter.

“It stops everything. Any progress that’s happening, it stops it,” he said.

Ms. Steele was more stoic about the practice but less diplomatic in her assessment of it.

“It sucks,” she said.

In seven months, she’s been outboarded six times, always to Oneida County.

“You get down there and you can’t see your family unless they come down there, and a lot of families can’t,” Ms. Steele said. “You can’t call your public defender. It’s understandable, though — this jail is so tiny.”

She won’t have to deal with the hassle much longer. On Monday, she is headed to Willard Drug Treatment Camp in Romulus for a 97-day “shock incarceration-style” program. If she fails that, she’s looking at six years in prison.

Big budget drain

Most days, there are 40 to 60 inmates boarded out from the Jefferson County jail.

According to numbers compiled by the Sheriff’s Department, the county spent $925,755 outboarding inmates in 2011 and $853,769.79 in 2012. The county has budgeted $900,000 for 2013, according to its adopted budget. It already has surpassed that estimate.

While officials and administrators acknowledge that the cost shows no signs of diminishing, they say it is still cheaper to outboard inmates than to add on to the jail, driving Jefferson County Sheriff John P. Burns to distraction, as he has long railed against the Board of Legislators’ stubborn refusal to build.

According to Mr. Burns, outboarding not only costs the county taxpayers money, it puts undue strain on his corrections officers, who usually have to work overtime shifts to ferry inmates back and forth for court appearances and meetings with their attorneys.

The county did make some initial forays into the prospect of building an addition a few years ago.

A 2008 study showed that an addition would cost about $12 million. Bonded over 15 years, the annual cost to the county in 2013 dollars would be $1,340,000. Jail staff also would have to be increased by 10 people to accommodate the additional inmates — an average annual expense of $765,296 in 2013 dollars.

The jail has a capacity of 160 inmates but can operate at only 80 percent of that capacity, according to state regulations. The county has a waiver to run the jail at 90 percent capacity — 144 inmates — according to jail supervisor Lt. Kristopher M. Spencer.

On Wednesday, the jail had 45 inmates housed out, including four in federal custody. The county does not have to pay for inmates under the supervision of the U.S. Marshals Service.

Of the 41 other inmates, one was in Essex County, six were in Lewis County, 11 were in Oneida County and the lion’s share — 23 — were in Albany County.

Albany County has one of the largest facilities in the state with more than 1,000 beds. Because of its size, it can open up an entire housing unit just for Jefferson County, which makes it easier to track and transport those inmates, Lt. Spencer said.

As of the end of August, Jefferson County has outboarded an average of 49 inmates a day during each of the first eight months of the year at a cost of $1,055,837.48.

a statewide problem

It is no different in many other counties across the state.

According to a Friday report from the state Commission of Correction, of the 57 New York counties outside of New York City, 34 were outboarding inmates — nearly 60 percent. The numbers fall in a range from one inmate outboarded from several counties to 155 outboarded from Dutchess County. The average is 17.8.

The list includes 16 counties that are both inboarding and outboarding inmates.

According to Lt. Spencer, this is often done because of classification rules that control the ratio of minor and female inmates to male inmates in a given facility and the physical characteristics of the facility, including the ability to keep adult males inmates segregated from females and minors as well as the number of jailers qualified to work with those populations.

The average cost of keeping an inmate in Jefferson County is $124.40 per day, according to Lt. Spencer.

In 2012, inmates were outboarded for 9,511 days, a number determined by the average number of inmates housed out in a given month multiplied by the number of days in that month.

Outboarding cost Jefferson County $853,769.70 in 2012, including overtime, transport costs and fringe benefits, resulting in an average daily outboarding cost of $89.76 per inmate.

Different counties charge Jefferson County different rates to house its inmates.

According to Lt. Spencer, Oneida and Lewis counties charge $90 per inmate per day, while Essex and Albany counties charge $70 and $80 per inmate per day, respectively.

The rate at Jefferson County is higher because it factors in maintenance costs, food service, medical service and educators at the jail, Lt. Spencer said.

A different dilemma

St. Lawrence County’s problems with its jail operating near capacity or beyond are more recent than the longer-standing issues in Jefferson County.

St. Lawrence opened a new jail in 2009 with a capacity of 164 inmates. The jail can accommodate 186 inmates with double-bunking in 22 cells, a measure that was approved by the state Commission of Correction in 2010.

Lawmakers weighing the cost of construction versus what might happen in the future determined the jail’s size despite a consultant’s warning that recent trends would see the jail filled within a half dozen years.

“State prison populations are going down. Where that population’s going is county jails,” Sheriff Kevin M. Wells said. “Everybody’s bursting.”

In St. Lawrence’s case, the consultant’s prediction came true a few years sooner than expected, accelerated by a slow-moving court system and budget cuts.

On a recent day, the jail’s population was at 177, including 153 men and 24 women. The percentage of sentenced inmates versus those held for other reasons was 15 to 85. An ideal mix would be closer to 50-50, Sheriff Wells said.

“We should be running 140 to 150, max. We’ve consistently been boarding six out for a while,” Sheriff Wells said. “It causes us problems with overtime and the cost of food. The jail runs efficiently, but it’s a stressor on staff.”

Excessive numbers of inmates, often not the healthiest population, can cost the county more for detoxification programs and emergency room visits. Their court appearances take up the time of the road patrol. Some inmates require more security watches than others.

The county already is increasing the correctional division of the sheriff’s budget by $160,000 this year to pay for the cost of boarding out prisoners.

County Administrator Karen M. St. Hilaire said she doubts the additional money already approved by legislators will be enough to get through the year, but she could not predict how much more might be needed or whether it would mean the county ends up spending more than it budgeted for contingency.

“The jail is continually overcrowded. Until we find alternatives, we probably will continue to see higher costs this year,” she said. “I don’t have a crystal ball. We’ve asked the sheriff to look at all aspects of his budget, to see if he has other money he could transfer.”

seeking solutions

Jefferson County legislators, who balk at the havoc new jail construction would wreak on their carefully crafted budget, realize that outboarding is not a long-term solution. Instead, they are looking to the state to help them with a problem they feel is not of their own making.

Philip N. Reed, R-Fishers Landing, chairman of the Jefferson County Board of Legislators General Services Committee, is questioning why the state won’t cooperate on the overcrowding issue.

Using recently closed dormitories at the Watertown Correctional Facility at Dry Hill would be ideal for housing inmates from Jefferson County instead of shipping those inmates across the state, he has said.

“It’s one thing to say, ‘We’ve repealed laws and restricted sentencing guidelines.’ If the state has vacancies, it can’t turn a blind eye to what’s going on in many, many counties across the state. We’re not alone in that,” Mr. Reed said. “It’s time to get serious. What’s the state’s plan? Leave these buildings empty? We need to come together to mitigate the cost to the taxpayer.”

Jail outboarding is a county problem and not a state problem, Sheriff Burns asserted, though he said would support a push to open up the dormitories at the Watertown Correctional Facility for county inmates.

“I’ve been behind that forever, but the last time I spoke with the state they told me it was absolutely not going to happen,” Mr. Burns said.

Jails were created “to keep local people local so that you didn’t have a hardship if people wanted to visit,” Mr. Burns said. “We’re boarding inmates out as far as Albany County. Families can’t afford to go 300 miles to visit their loved ones.”

state roadblocks

But there are several regulations barring such a practice, according to state Corrections Law.

A section of the law requires anyone committed to the sheriff be kept in the county jail. The sheriff cannot let any such person out of jail without lawful authority, the law states.

Another section allows county jail inmates to be transferred to state facilities only under extraordinary circumstances, such as a natural disaster or the outbreak of a “pestilential disease.”

Another provision of the law relates to people released from prison on parole. Parolees arrested for violating the terms of their parole are to be held in the county where they are arrested until their cases are adjudicated, according to Corrections Law.

On Wednesday, Jefferson County had two parole violators on its rolls and 14 parolees who had been arrested for new crimes.

At one time, the state provided a small reimbursement to counties for housing parole violators — about $34 — but that practice stopped in 2009.

On Friday, there were 816 parole violators housed at county jails throughout the state, according to the Commission of Correction. There were also 250 “state-ready” inmates who had been sentenced to state prison but had not yet been moved.

Felons accused of violating their parole can languish in county jails because their cases, which can include charges in other courts, can take time to resolve. A bill pushed by state Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, would require parole violators be transferred to a state facility within 10 days.

The bill was passed by the Senate during this year’s legislative session but was not picked up by the Assembly.

Assemblyman Kenneth D. Blankenbush, R-Black River, is planning to sign on to the bill as a cosponsor next session, according to the assemblyman’s chief of staff, Brian Peck.

“We definitely appreciate that effort. While it’s not going to totally remedy the situation, every little bit helps,” Mr. Reed said.

The Association of Counties also is asking the state to move parolees out of county jails faster or to start reimbursing counties for housing parolees again. The association also is in favor of enrolling inmates in Medicaid for those who qualify and of the use of telepsychiatry and telemedicine to save money.

Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell, D-Theresa, said that many inmates in county lockup end up there because they are not being served by the existing mental health system and that a renewed emphasis on mental health care may help alleviate the problem of overcrowding.

She said the planned closure of the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center in Ogdensburg would only exacerbate the problem.

A bill that would require the commissioner of correctional services to enter into agreements with counties to take custody of inmates serving sentences longer than 90 days was introduced earlier this year by Assemblywoman Aileen M. Gunther, D-Forestburgh. It was referred to the Assembly’s Committee on Correction in January but was never voted on.

State representatives from the north country are generally in favor of the idea of housing inmates at nearby state correctional facilities, though they voiced several concerns, including payment arrangements with the state and keeping unsentenced inmates away from sentenced felons.

a slow-moving system

The population at the St. Lawrence County jail in Canton took a dip earlier in the week when seven inmates went to state prison. Five more were ready to go, but they are generally not the reason for overcrowding.

“They don’t stay here long. It’s not about the state-ready,” Sheriff Wells said. “The problem with county jails is with parolees.”

On a recent day, the jail housed five parolees. The average daily cost of housing an inmate in the St. Lawrence County jail is $119.

Changes in how the court system treats certain defendants also has driven up jail numbers.

Drug offenders often are steered into judicial intervention programs that can keep them out of state prison and help them with their addiction or mental health, but it also means many of them sit in jail while waiting for a rehabilitation program. They also can land back in jail several times if they violate conditions of their program.

“It’s a serious burden on local resources. We don’t have adequate services as it is,” District Attorney Nicole M. Duve said. “Dressed up under another name, it’s another unfunded mandate.”

Holdups at every step of the criminal justice system also can lead to more jail inmates.

“It’s a combination of things,” Sheriff Wells said. “It’s not that anyone is not doing their job.”

Ms. Duve’s office has struggled with not having enough attorneys. Although legislators approved hiring replacements earlier this summer for two assistants who left, Ms. Duve said she has not yet found attorneys to take the jobs. Ms. Duve is facing re-election and tells candidates they may be out of a job if she is defeated by Republican challenger Mary E. Rain.

The Probation Department also has been stretched by budget reductions demanded by legislators to cut costs. Rather than the six weeks it used to take for a presentence investigation report, a completed study now can take 10 weeks. Meanwhile, defendants usually sit in jail.

“When I gave up a senior probation officer, I forecast what would happen,” Probation Director Edward C. Gauthier said.

taking local steps

St. Lawrence County already is talking about what it can do to ease jail crowding.

“There’s no doubt budget cuts made it tough,” Legislator Vernon D. “Sam” Burns, D-Ogdensburg, said during a recent discussion of the problem at a committee meeting. “We may in the big picture save more by giving Probation additional staff and tweaking the whole process.”

Public Defender Stephen D. Button is working on an alternatives to incarceration state grant application that could include the return of electronic home monitoring, which ended in 2011.

People placed on electronic home monitoring are fitted with a computerized bracelet that sets off an alert if they do not stay in their homes. The monitors can include a global positioning system to track movements and a sobriety device to ensure alcohol and possibly drugs are not abused.

Mr. Gauthier has made no secret of his department’s reservations about electronic home monitoring because it adds more supervisory responsibility for a staff he does not have. When people break the terms of their probation, they are sent back to court whether they have been on their own recognizance or wearing a bracelet.

“We find them in violation,” Mr. Gauthier said. “Electronic home monitoring just adds another layer to that.”

But County Judge Jerome J. Richards said he appreciated the option when he was district attorney.

“I liked it,” the judge told legislators. “I think it kept people out of jail who were close to going to jail. I think most people want to stay out of jail if you give them a way.”

In addition to potentially reducing the jail population, electronic home monitoring can persuade defendants to change their behavior and let the court know if they are a good candidate for probation as a sentence, he said.

Violators under electronic home monitoring are easier to send to jail than a defendant who was released on recognizance, Judge Richards said.

“You don’t need testimony,” he said. “It just has to be reasonable cause.”

But Judge Richards acknowledged electronic home monitoring requires more staff than Mr. Gauthier has.

“It’s pretty time intensive,” he said. “Ed’s been sliced pretty thin, so I don’t know how that would work out.”

The county also is looking at speeding up alcohol and drug evaluations while inmates are in the jail.

The Jefferson County Probation Department also uses electronic home monitoring as part of its pretrial alternatives to incarceration program, which screened 1,424 inmates in 2012, eventually removing 392 from the jail under its supervision.

smaller jail, better shape

Unlike its neighbors, Lewis County has not experienced extensive jail overcrowding, allowing it to accept inmates from surrounding counties and federal prisoners from Fort Drum. Its local inmate census has stayed steady.

“We’re very lucky here that we’re not growing,” Sheriff Michael P. Carpinelli said.

Lewis County last year was paid $210,150 to house 84 outside inmates, 54 federal ones and 30 from other counties, according to information provided by Lt. Sherry M. Stanford, jail administrator. So far this year, 34 have been housed, including a pair of federal prisoners now in the Lowville jail.

Sheriff Carpinelli said the jail, which has a capacity of 42 inmates, is typically jammed with local prisoners only once a year, stemming from arrests made at a Turin-area music festival.

“moe.down, that’s the only time,” he said.

According to Lt. Stanford,the Lewis County jail housed 39 inmates Friday morning, including six male inmates from Jefferson County.

The county charges $90 per day to board outside inmates, although that amount has not been adjusted for about five years and, thus, may not cover costs as well as it did initially, she said.

The county’s Public Safety Complex on outer Stowe Street, which opened in 1990, includes two large cell blocks with 16 beds apiece, four other two-bed blocks and two additional holding cells that may be used for inmates in a pinch. The smaller blocks typically are used to house female and youth prisoners, who must be kept separate from the primary population of adult males, Lt. Stanford said.

While currently unnecessary, a future addition to the Lewis County jail could allow for more flexibility and, possibly, be effectively paid for by housing extra outside inmates, Sheriff Carpinelli said.

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