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St. Lawrence County legislators increase budget for boarding out prisoners

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CANTON — St. Lawrence County legislators are increasing this year’s budget for the correctional division of the Sheriff’s Department by $160,000 to pay for unanticipated costs, including the boarding out of prisoners because of a crowded jail.

“This is the projection to try to get us through the rest of the year,” Sheriff Kevin M. Wells said. “I’m not seeing relief in sight. The relief would come from the criminal justice system picking up pace.”

The jail’s capacity is 186 inmates, but not every bed may be used on any given day because of classifications and gender. Some inmates are not appropriate for general housing and are in a special unit. Some do not get along with each other. Some have to be separated from others for their own safety.

“We have numerous co-defendants in jail that have to be separated,” Mr. Wells said. “It’s a complicated place to run.”

This year’s budget was based on inmate numbers averaging around 145 on any one day, but they have instead been about 175 for the last month and a half, Mr. Wells said.

County officials last year also included in the budget $175,000 in revenue that has been gained in the past by housing prisoners from other counties whose own jails were overcrowded.

“If we’re full, we can’t board prisoners in,” County Administrator Karen M. St. Hilaire said.

On Tuesday, the jail had 182 inmates, including six that were boarded out, said Daniel L. Dominie, jail administrator.

In addition to paying boarding costs for inmates sent to other facilities, the additional money approved in committee by legislators will go toward increased costs for food and medical bills.

Due to fiscal problems, the county budgeted only $500,000 in its contingency account for this year. Before Sheriff Wells’s request, the county had spent $100,000 of the contingency. It could spend much of the rest on additional costs for indigent defense, Ms. St. Hilaire said.

“We’re close,” she said. “We have to watch that very carefully.”

The county might consider alternatives to incarceration, Public Defender Stephen D. Button said.

Mr. Button hopes to dovetail a recent $13,700 Aid to Defense grant from the state Division of Criminal Justice Services that defrays the cost of mandated representation for indigent defendants into a larger application that could resurrect electronic home monitoring. That could reduce the strain on an already overcrowded jail and offer a more lenient approach for appropriate candidates, Mr. Button said.

Electronic home monitoring does not, however, have the support of Probation Director Edward G. Gauthier.

“My opposition is pretty well known. My staff isn’t interested,” he said. “The reality is, I believe we get people out of jail who should be out of jail.”

People on electronic home monitoring still need to be supervised, and no one gains when defendants on the program do not cooperate and are taken back to jail, Mr. Gauthier said.

Mr. Gauthier suggested grant money might be found to reimburse certified alcohol counselors who do assessments of defendants in the jail rather than in county clinics, where payment generally comes from the clients themselves or from Medicaid.

“It has the potential to start the evaluation quicker,” he said.

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