Oswego County combating jail overcrowding with technology

Apr 17, 2014

The Oswego County Jail's inmate population has grown over the past four years, and has forced Oswego County to send inmates elsewhere to be housed. County officials sat at least some of the blame lies with the state.

In this year's budget, Oswego County Sheriff Reuel Todd says he allotted $100,000 to cover the costs of housing inmates at outside facilities. But two months into the new year, Todd had already used $130,000 and is now requesting more funding.

In recent years, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has pushed for the closure of state prisons, citing an inmate population decline of more than 17,000 since 1999. Four additional prisons will close later this year. Among them are three medium security prisons; Butler in Wayne County, Chateaugay in Franklin County and Mount McGregor in Saratoga County; and one minimum-security prison, Monterey Shock in Schuyler County.

Fewer state prisons mean more parole violators are held at county jails across the state. Oswego County District Attorney Gregory Oakes calls this an unfunded mandate.

"The Department of Corrections isn't moving those cases as quickly as they once did," Oakes said. "Those are guys that are essentially being housed for the state at a cost to local taxpayers."

Oakes says another part of the problem stems from local judges offering those convicted of misdemeanor charges weekend jail time so they can still work.

"That approach has a lot of value, but the problem is that come Friday, our jail looks like the Holiday Inn," Oakes explained. "And a lot of the costs that the jail has had is housing those inmates on the weekend."

Sheriff Todd says the jail contains 159 beds. Up until 2010, the jail averaged fewer than 129 inmates, but since 2012 it has been filled to capacity. He says those averages don't include the number of weekend inmates the jail brings in, which he says can add up to 70 extra people that need to be sent elsewhere.

Housing an inmate in another county costs between $90 and $100 per day. Todd says he's looking into other options to save money, including electronic monitoring bracelets for people who meet pre-trial release criteria.

"I think each one of the ankle bracelets is $8," Todd said. "So there's an $82 savings getting them out of jail, so that we don't have to board them out or we can bring somebody back that's being boarded out when we release them. So there's an immediate savings of over 90 percent."

Todd says the bracelets come with other benefits.

"We don't have to pay their medical when they're out on the street," Todd explained. "We don't have to pay the transports to get them back and forth."

D.A. Oakes says expanding the electronic monitoring program is only one cost saving measure the department is considering.

"Guys who would have typically been in jail on bail are released with electronic monitoring," Oakes said. "So in cases where they are non-violent crimes, and we don't believe the person is a risk to the community or a flight risk, we've been recommending the electronic monitoring as a cheaper alternative to jail."

Since the electronic monitoring program began in December 2012, the county estimates its savings at nearly $300,000.

Oakes says the county is currently exploring new ways to integrate technology into the jail, by discussing with the sheriff ways to promote video conferencing to allow attorneys to speak with their clients.

"Attorneys can't always get to the jail," Oakes said. "Sometimes they're stuck at their office. So if they're able to Skype with their client, talk about the case and hopefully get a resolution worked out, we're hoping it'll help us facilitate a speedy resolution to some of these cases."

The county is also attempting to streamline its prosecution to lessen the amount of time people are held in the jail while awaiting trial, and have increased the numbers of grand jury days held each week. Both are expected to reduce overcrowding by moving cases along more efficiently.