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Russell to propose state legislation to address city inmate problem

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WATERTOWN — The two City Court judges soon may have to perform arraignments within eight hours of a city police arrest — responding in the middle of the night if necessary — or the city will not be allowed to hold suspects at the Metro-Jefferson Public Safety Building.

Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell, D-Theresa, said Friday that she plans to sponsor legislation that would resolve a custodial problem involving suspects arrested by city police. Despite long-standing practice in Jefferson County, a state directive prohibits holding suspects arrested by city police in the county lockup with other inmates before the suspects have been brought before a judge for arraignment.

Suspects arrested late at night or on weekends commonly must wait in the PSB until City Court reopens during normal business hours. The speedier arraignment is apparently the state’s preferred solution, according to Watertown Mayor Jeffrey E. Graham.

The issue came to light last week after the state Commission of Correction informed Jefferson County Sheriff John P. Burns that unarraigned suspects could no longer be kept in lockup at the PSB. The change goes into effect on April 16.

County and city officials were left scrambling to find out the reason for the directive and why it was happening now.

City Councilwoman Roxanne M. Burns said she contacted Assemblywoman Russell to sponsor “home rule” legislation that would “ease the burden” that was placed on the city as a result of the Commission of Correction.

“The city is interested in moving the problem down the path, moving it down the road, and addressing it in the short term,” the assemblywoman said.

According to Mrs. Russell, the legislation would spell out swifter arraignments, as is the practice of town and village justices.

The move would mean city justices would have to be available at all hours of the day and night.

Since the PSB was constructed in 1992, city police suspects have been detained there pending arraignment, sometimes from a Friday night until court opens Monday morning. Under the proposed legislation, arraignments would have to be conducted within eight hours.

During a Jan. 30 meeting about staffing levels at the jail, state Commission of Correction officials told county officials that the way city suspects were held at the jail violated state corrections law, according to city and county officials.

Little else was said about the issue until Sheriff Burns sent a letter last week to Watertown Police Chief Gary R. Comins informing him that the jail would no longer supervise unarraigned individuals after April 15.

“It’s been going on for 22 years, and it’s been going on today,” Ms. Burns said, wondering why the city has been put into this situation now.

It is currently the practice that town and village justices are awakened in the middle of night, so that suspects are arraigned quickly and before they head to the county lockup.

As a result, the public safety building would be under state compliance, she said.

With city police cases, a suspect could be arrested on Friday night and sent to the county lockup, where they would remain until being arraigned on Monday morning, she said. State police and sheriff deputies must now either find a judge to arraign a suspect before they are brought to the PSB, or issue an appearance ticket, when arrests occur in towns and villages.

Scott A. Gray, Chairman of the Jefferson County Board of Legislators Finance and Rules Committee, also has requested Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, sponsor legislation in that house.

Sen. Ritchie was not available for comment, but her spokeswoman, Sarah Compo, said she “is aware of the situation.”

Both the state Assembly and Senate are out of session for the next two weeks, so it most likely won’t be until May before she can introduce legislation to fix the problem. Mrs. Russell said she cannot introduce it until the county legislature requests it.

“This is not the entire resolution to this issue,” Mr. Gray said. “At the very minimum, it brings us into compliance with corrections law.”

Even if the legislation is pursued, it is unclear how it would be implemented and what would happen to suspects if a judge is not available for arraignment.

The city has used half of an intake/holding area at the PSB since the building opened in 1992. The holding area, which comprises two single cells capable of holding two or three people and a larger group cell, is supervised by county corrections officers. Over the past 12 months, city police have brought 885 pre-arraignment suspects to the PSB, according to Mr. Slye.

Arraignments for city police arrests must be held in Watertown City Court as required by the state.

On Monday night, the Watertown City Council is expected to address the situation.

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