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St. Lawrence County jail costs continue upward

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CANTON — St. Lawrence County legislators on Monday approved an infusion of $400,000 more for this year to pay for increased costs of boarding inmates at the county jail.

The emergency funding includes $50,000 for medical fees, $87,000 for medical supplies, $54,000 for inmate hospitalization, $88,000 for food, and $141,763 for court commitments.

“This is basically a result of having far more inmates in the jail than we expected,” Administrator Karen M. St. Hilaire said at the Board of Legislators Services Committee meeting. “We have a full house.”

The correctional division budget for the Sheriff’s Department for this year had included revenue the county hoped to bring in from housing inmates from other counties, so the fact that the jail is overstuffed with defendants from within the county has worsened monetary matters. In August, the county transferred $160,000 from a contingency account to pay for additional costs from the jail population boom.

This year’s budget was based on inmate numbers averaging around 145 on any one day, but they have instead averaged about 175 for a number of months. The jail’s capacity is 186 inmates, but it would be a rare day for every bunk to be filled because of classifications used to separate inmates.

A combination of factors have led to the increase in the jail population, including longer wait times for pre-sentence investigations, understaffed judicial departments, and other holdups in an already slow-moving court system.

The money transfer to help the jail limp through the rest of the year leaves the county with little in its piggy bank.

It has already gone through what it set aside for its untargeted rainy day money and has turned to contingency money in areas it also expected might run short, leaving about $500,000 for the rest of the year.

“It doesn’t wipe us out,” Ms. St. Hilaire said.

Legislators also approved immediately hiring a correctional officer to fill a vacancy due to a resignation rather than wait the usual 30 days.

“I think we’ve seen enough of overtime in the Sheriff’s Department,” Legislator Vernon D. “Sam” Burns, D-Ogdensburg, said. “Somehow, we have to get a handle on these expenses.”

Legislators accepted a state grant of $191,528 for one year that will pay for two clerical workers for the Office of the Public Defender and the Conflict Defender and for the

Assigned Counsel Program for lawyers to be with defendants at their first appearance in court.

The grant will target the busiest of the county’s 36 courts, in Gouverneur, Canton, Potsdam, Ogdensburg, Massena, Fowler, Pierrepont, Morristown, and Oswegatchie, paying attorneys to be with defendants when they first come before a judge.

“We’re going to put ‘boots on the ground’ with defendants at their first arraignment,” Public Defender Stephen D. Button said.

Defendants represented by counsel have a better chance of staying out of jail than those who appear in court on their own, he said.

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