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Jefferson County seeks extension from state on jail solution

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WATERTOWN — Jefferson County officials are seeking a reprieve from the Commission of Correction as they try to meet state demands to change the way suspects are held prior to their arraignment.

The issue involves the holding area in the Metro-Jefferson Public Safety Building where individuals are put when they are arrested, typically by Watertown city police, to wait their turn before a judge.

Jefferson County Sheriff John P. Burns on March 28 informed Watertown Police Chief Gary R. Comins that after April 15 the county lockup no longer will be able to hold pre-arraigned suspects, under state corrections law. The deadline left city and county officials scrambling to change a system that has operated for the past 20 years.

The Metro-Jefferson Public Safety Building includes six holding areas where suspects arrested for everything from bar fights to driving while intoxicated are held overnight and on the weekends before arraignment on criminal charges. The rooms are simple and unadorned, with steel toilets and concrete walls, a phone and hazy mirror the only wall decorations.

When the PSB was built, these pens were not considered part of the jail; they were considered a separate unit for securing pre-arraignment suspects.

The commission considers those holding cells to be within the confines of the county jail, and corrections law does not allow the sheriff to hold individuals without a court order, arraignment or indictment, Jefferson County Attorney David J. Paulsen told members of the Jefferson County Board of Legislators General Services Committee on Tuesday.

Proposals to fix the situation include passing home-rule legislation exempting the county from the state mandate, speeding up arraignments and even installing benches with “bull rings” where suspects can be chained while their arresting officers complete paperwork.

Each potential solution presents potential problems, and Mr. Paulsen said he and City Attorney Robert J. Slye are negotiating with the state for a reprieve from the enforcement of the corrections law while they figure out a way to comply.

Mr. Paulsen is expected to speak with Commission of Correction officials today and outline a plan that would have the county seek home-rule legislation from the state Legislature that would allow it to continue to operate the holding area as it has since the PSB was completed in 1992.

The principle drawback to that plan, according to Mr. Paulsen, is that the Commission of Corrections then would consider the holding area to be a part of the county jail proper and subject to rules regarding time limits for individuals held prior to arraignment.

Suspects held by themselves in a single cell would have to be arraigned within 12 hours, Mr. Paulsen said, while individuals held with others in a group cell would have to be arraigned within four hours.

After four hours pass, the suspects then would have to be interviewed, assessed for risks and placed in a special housing unit capable of accepting pre-arraigned suspects, according to Mr. Paulsen.

If that sounds confusing, that’s because it is.

Mr. Paulsen said he did not understand why the state Commission of Correction has not simply changed the law, which was written before modern jails began to be built in the 1980s.

“There’s nothing that you can put your finger on that is an exact solution,” said Legislator Scott A. Gray, R-Watertown. “It’s a combination of things.”

Legislator John D. Peck, R-Great Bend, expressed dismay at the idea of chaining pre-arraigned suspects to a bench — a measure intended to increase the capacity of the holding area.

“If these individuals are innocent until proven guilty, let’s give them some dignity. You don’t need to chain someone to a bull ring,” Mr. Peck said.

The April 15 deadline for compliance was not set by the Commission of Correction but by Mr. Burns, according to Mr. Paulsen.

City officials have indicated they were surprised by Mr. Burns’s letter.

But Mr. Comins said Tuesday that the sheriff told him in February that the Commission on Correction notified the county during a January inspection that the PSB was not in compliance with holding cell policy. In turn, Mr. Comins told City Manager Sharon A. Addison about the situation.

Ms. Addison recalled that at the time, “there was no cause for alarm, no urgency.”

Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell, D-Theresa, said one idea to solve the problem was to pass legislation giving Jefferson County an exemption to allow prearraigned suspects to be kept in PSB holding cells, but, she said, Mr. Burns told her that would create other problems.

With the four-hour limit on pre-arraigned suspects held in groups and the jail already overcrowded, Mr. Burns said the legislation would require jail administrators to move inmates to jails in other counties, according to Mrs. Russell.

The sheriff told her “it would be too costly” to the county, she said.

In other jail-related developments, the General Services Committee unanimously endorsed a resolution to hire five new corrections officers over the next two years as required by a recently released staffing study conducted by the Commission of Correction.

It was during the course of this study that the discrepancy with the way pre-arraigned suspects are held was first discovered.

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