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Temporary solution found for Jefferson County jail holding use

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WATERTOWN — City officials received a temporary reprieve from a directive by the state Commission of Correction that changes the way suspects are held before arraignment.

An agreement was reached after City Attorney Robert J. Slye met Friday with Judge James C. Tormey, the Fifth Judicial District’s administrative judge, who oversees City Court. The city faced a Tuesday deadline after which suspects no longer can be held at the Metro-Jefferson Public Safety Building if they have not yet been arraigned by a judge.

To resolve the matter, for now, City Manager Sharon A. Addison confirmed Friday that two former cells in the Watertown City Court area of City Hall will be used as a lockup for suspects arrested by city police. The cells have not been used since the Watertown Police Department moved into the PSB in 1992.

As part of the arrangement, area judges and justices will perform evening arraignments, Mayor Jeffrey E. Graham said.

Councilwoman Roxanne M. Burns said she was relieved that Judge Tormey approved the transient arrangement Friday.

“It’s good news we have a temporary solution, hopefully,” she said.

However, Tuesday’s deadline remains intact. County officials will continue to seek home-rule legislation for Jefferson County to get an exemption from the Commission on Correction law regarding prearraigned suspects, Ms. Addison said.

Jefferson County Sheriff John P. Burns on March 28 informed Watertown Police Chief Gary R. Comins that after Tuesday, the county lockup no longer can hold prearraigned 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 Public Safety Building includes six holding areas where suspects arrested for everything from bar fights to driving while intoxicated are held overnight and on weekends before arraignment on criminal charges. The rooms are simple and unadorned, with steel toilets and concrete walls.

When the PSB was built, those cells were not considered part of the jail; they were seen as a separate unit for securing suspects before arraignment.

The commission, however, considers those holding cells to be within the confines of the county jail. Corrections law does not allow the sheriff to hold individuals without a court order, arraignment or indictment, county officials said.

Calls to Legislator Scott A. Gray, R-Watertown, Jefferson County Administrator Robert F. Hagemann III, Watertown Police Chief Gary R. Comins and Jefferson County Undersheriff Paul W. Trudeau were not immediately returned.

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