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April 7, 2014

Oswego County Combats Jail Overcrowding with Alternatives to Incarceration

OSWEGO COUNTY - The Oswego County Legislature's Public Safety and Finance and Personnel committees have approved a budget modification request from Oswego County Sheriff Reuel A. Todd to cover the cost of housing inmates out-of-county. In the first two months of the year, this expense amounted to $130,000 which exhausted the adopted 2014 budget amount of $100,000. The full Legislature will vote on the budget transfer next Thursday.

"A minimum of $30,000 is necessary at this time to process payments for costs that have already been incurred," said Sheriff Todd. "We are requesting additional funding to cover estimated expenses for the rest of the year."

He added, "Capacity at the Oswego County Correctional Facility continues to exceed its limits due to a variety of factors. This results in inmates being housed in facilities in other counties at the expense of our own."

Some of the factors associated with overcrowding at the county jail include more local arrests for drugs and other felonies, longer jail sentences, the number of days defendants await sentencing, and the closure of state prisons. These closures have created a rise in the number of state parole violators being housed at the Oswego facility. This is an unfunded state mandate which, along with the state's denial of a housing limit variance, has compounded the problem and forced the county to house prisoners at other counties' prisons at local taxpayer expense.

"We are prosecuting an unprecedented number of felony cases through County Court," said Oswego County District Attorney Gregory Oakes. "Between 2009 and 2011, an average of 218 cases went through the court each year. In the past two years, we prosecuted 312 felony cases per year." He added, "We are seeing an unprecedented level of criminal activity that is related to the use and abuse of drugs, including prescription medications. Substance abuse is one of the things we need to address in order to lower the crime rate and reduce jail costs in the long term."

The Oswego County Alternatives to Incarceration Board (ATI) is established by the Legislature Chairman to address the problem.

"The ATI analyzes the population of the jail for trends and areas of improvement," said Legislator Linda Lockwood, District 11, chairwoman of the Oswego County Legislature's Public Safety Committee. "We are actively pursuing solutions to the problem by working with various county departments and the courts to explore and expand alternatives to incarceration."

Electronic monitoring (EM) plays a substantial role in the solution to overcrowding at the county jail and housing inmates out-of-county. The program began in December 2012 and has steadily grown to become an accepted and meaningful sanction. Since its inception, electronic monitoring has saved county taxpayers $290,300. "EM is an effective alternative for individuals who do not pose a risk to residents," said Oswego County Probation Director Deborah Meyer. "It is used in pre-trial releases and for Drug Court and probation violations. We are also considering its use for people who are waiting to begin the Drug Court program." The pre-trial release program allows defendants to remain in the community under supervision by the Oswego County Probation Department while they wait for sentencing in their cases. Drug Court and probation violators are also taking part in the program as a way to free up space in the county jail and to allow them to continue their rehabilitation treatment and employment.

In terms of cost, the benefits of the program are staggering. "The expense of housing an inmate in jail can be around $100 per day, as compared with EM, where the cost is $7 per day for equipment plus the contract on-call rate for evenings, weekends and holidays," said Meyer. "As an illustration, if there are 30 offenders in the county jail, the county's cost for those inmates is $3,000 per day. With EM, the county's cost for that same number of offenders is $260 per day. This could potentially save the county $82,000 per month." Oakes added, "We are especially promoting EM for defendants who receive 'intermittent incarceration,' which is weekends in jail. Rather than costing the county $100 per day in jail, the offender is placed on home confinement for a fraction of the cost."

The probation department has two staff people whose primary duties are to work with judges and EM clients as well as an on-call roster of probation officers who monitor clients outside of regular business hours.

The Oswego County District Attorney's (D.A.) Office has also taken steps to help reduce overcrowding at the county jail. "With the support of the Oswego County Legislature, our office recently contracted with an attorney to handle all of our felony appeals as part of a pilot program," said Oakes. "By outsourcing the appellate work, our staff is better able to focus on new cases that are impacting the jail population. It is a more cost-effective way to utilize the resources within our office."

The D.A.'s Office has also streamlined prosecution so that cases are moving through the courts more efficiently. Oakes said, "We're paying particular attention to violent crimes, burglaries and drug offences as well as repeat offenders and parolees. Those cases are being fast-tracked for presentation to the Grand Jury. We have also added an extra day of Grand Jury each week so that the case goes to County Court as quickly as possible. As a result, 47 percent of un-sentenced inmates have been in jail less than one month and 77 percent have been in jail less than three months. At the beginning of the year, the D.A.'s Office also adopted a new Web-based case management system that is hosted by the New York State Prosecutor's Training Institute. The program does not cost the county and allows prosecutors to track their cases and access the files in court which helps them resolve the cases in a timely manner.

"Each of these measures helps save space in our jail, so that we will not have to send as many people to other facilities," said Sheriff Todd. For more information about the work of the Oswego County Alternatives to Incarceration Board, call Oswego County Probation Department Director Deborah Meyer at 315-349-3477.


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