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Watertown, Jefferson County looking for answer over jail issue

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WATERTOWN — Jefferson County and Watertown city officials are still at a loss to say precisely why they must change the way they hold suspects arrested by city police officers at the Metro-Jefferson Public Safety Building and how they might resolve the situation.

During a Jan. 30 meeting about staffing levels at the jail, state Commission of Correction officials told county officials the way city suspects were being held at the jail violated state corrections law, according to County Administrator Robert F. Hagemann III.

“It was mentioned in passing. They observed some things. They thought the protocol was incorrect,” Mr. Hagemann said.

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

Jefferson County Attorney David J. Paulsen said that he and Watertown City Attorney Robert J. Slye spoke to three officials from the state Commission of Correction on Wednesday.

“We came up with some working ideas that we’re following up on,” Mr. Paulsen said.

Mr. Paulsen said he needed to consult with the Jefferson County Board of Legislators and Mr. Burns before he could comment on the specific nature of the ideas, but he did say that a variety of actions were discussed and that additional construction at the facility “probably” would not be involved.

Legislation was discussed as well as changes in policy, though it was not determined what governmental body would sponsor the legislative effort, Mr. Paulsen said.

Any resolution likely would involve an act of the state Legislature at some point, according to Mr. Paulsen.

The city has used one 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 on either side, is supervised by county corrections officers.

Over the past 12 months, city police brought 885 pre-arraignment suspects to the PSB, according to Mr. Slye.

It would create havoc if the state enforces the law prohibiting the Sheriff’s Department from holding the city’s prearraigned suspects, Mr. Slye said.

City police officers have the ability to set “police bail” on suspects before they are arraigned, which allows them to place them in the custody of the county in one of the jail’s holding cells.

Sheriff’s deputies do not have the ability to set bail. They either must find a judge to arraign a suspect or release the suspect with an appearance ticket, depending on the alleged crime, Jefferson County Undersheriff Paul W. Trudeau told county legislators Tuesday.

Arraignments for city police arrests must be held in Watertown City Court as required by the state, while arraignments for sheriff’s cases, on occasion, even can be held in the homes of town or village justices, Mr. Slye said. There is some dispute over whether that practice continues.

“Those days are over,” Mr. Trudeau told legislators on Tuesday.

Mr. Slye said the partnership with the county for the unarraigned suspects going to the county lockup has worked well for years. He called it a perfect example of how municipalities can work together on sharing services and consolidation, which has been a recent mantra by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

To get that law amended for Jefferson County, the county would have to make a request allowing unarraigned inmates to be housed at the county jail until they are arraigned. It would take statutory authority by the state Legislature to approve the request, said Janine Kava, a spokeswoman for the Commission of Correction.

To date, 14 counties have received permission from the state to house unarraigned suspects in their jails.

The Yates County Sheriff’s Department went through the same predicament about 10 years ago following a state Correction Commission inspection, Yates County Sheriff Ronald Spike said. He had the same reaction then that Jefferson and Watertown officials are having now about the situation.

“I said, ‘Are you kidding me? Really?’” Sheriff Spike said. “Why is this happening now?”

He was forced to request a change for his jail through the state, even though he fought the state on the issue, Sheriff Spike recalled. He ended up closing his four holding cells for three months until the state Legislature passed the amendment.

The sheriff’s and Watertown City Police departments have shared the PSB since it was built in 1992. Before that, suspects arrested by city police were kept at the city police station at City Hall and then taken upstairs to City Court for their arraignments.

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