By JIMMY LAWTON
CANTON -- An increased crime rate and a large number of inmates awaiting trials or sentencing has forced St. Lawrence County to increase spending on inmate boarding.
St. Lawrence County Administrator Karen St. Hilaire said the county moved $160,000 from its contingency fund to address the growing costs at a Monday meeting. St. Hilaire said the $500,000 contingency fund is set aside to cover emergency expenses that exceed any of the county’s many departmental budgets.
"As you can see that doesn't leave a lot of money to go around," she said.
St. Hilaire said part of the problem is a delay in finishing pre-sentencing reports. The reports provide background information that may impact sentencing, and must be completed before the case can move forward.
"Those would typically be done in six weeks, now because of decreased staffing they have been taking closer to 9 to 10 weeks," she said.
St. Hilaire said a position that would help speed up that process was recently approved.
The increased processing time means inmates who have not been tried, or sentenced, could be locked up for longer periods of time as they await court decisions.
"According to (St. Lawrence County Sheriff Kevin Wells), a healthy jail should be about 50/50 with inmates awaiting sentencing and inmates serving sentencing," she said. "At our jail that number is skewed. We have an awful lot of people in the ‘not sentenced’ category being held," she said.
St. Hilaire said she was not qualified to discuss why those numbers are up, but said the board plans to meet to discuss possible alternatives to pre-sentencing incarceration.
She said among the topics to be discussed are house arrest or alternative supervision.
St. Lawrence County Correctional facility has around 180 beds, and around 170 inmates. While that does leave empty beds, St. Hilaire said regulations regarding which inmates can be in particular pods can make them hard to fill. For instance, minors are separated from adults and inmates are also separated by gender.
Last year the county was able to bring in revenue from its empty beds.
She said the county budgeted $175,000 in revenue, which it typically generates by boarding inmates from other overcrowded facilities.
"This year we have only collected about $40,000 and we aren't realistically going to reach $175,000," she said. "We can't fill beds that we don't have."
St. Hilaire said the county is working with the sheriff's department to address the issue. She said Wells is going over his budget to find possible transfers that can offset the growing cost.
She said the county is also awaiting funding from a $587,000 grant that will help ensure those who can't afford an attorney are during first court appearances. St. Hilaire said this representation could also reduce the number of people being held on bail or awaiting sentencing.
The county is expected to discuss the issue further at its Aug. 19 meeting.