A study recently released by the Vera Institute of Justice reported that rural jails are now growing at a faster rate than their urban counterparts.
Though crime rates are still lower in rural areas, and even nationwide, the study notes that rural areas in the southern and western parts of the country lack the justice department resources, such as additional judges, adequate probation services and incarceration alternatives, that urban centers typically have.
What rural jails in Northern New York are experiencing is no different, but there is also another factor at work: the opioid epidemic.
With a steady rise in drug arrests over the last several years, north country law enforcement officials agree that the opioid problem that has plagued the Northeast for years is a significant cause of jail overcrowding, leading to increased outboarding costs.
Lt. Kristopher M. Spencer, jail administrator at the Metro-Jefferson Public Safety Building, said the jail frequently inboarded inmates from Fort Drum or other municipalities that couldn’t board them. But starting about 10 years ago, he said, overcrowding started to become an issue, with inmates increasingly jailed on drug-related offenses.
“And then we never looked back from that,” he said.
FROM POSITIVE TO NEGATIVE
Between 1996 and 2005, before jail overcrowding became an issue, the county made an average of more than $270,000 annually by boarding inmates. But the tide swung as inboarding revenue decreased, and the county began spending more to outboard inmates to other jails.
The overcrowding prompted an exploration of constructing a new jail pod. The county jail has three pods that hold 64 inmates each, and the daily cost to house an inmate is around $158 per day. Under rules set by the New York state Commission of Corrections, the jail can operate only at 90 percent capacity.
The price tag for a new pod, however, would have been more than $12 million. County legislators instead opted to renovate jail recreational space into a dormitory-style pod to house an additional 32 inmates.
The dormitory pod has dropped the cost of outboarding significantly in recent years, going from $1,719,030 in 2014 to $335,925 last year.
So far this year, the Jefferson County jail is once again experiencing an inboarding uptick.
Between January and May, the county jail has boarded 408 inmates that couldn’t be housed elsewhere, producing $52,500 in revenue.
Philip N. Reed, chairman of the Jefferson County Legislature General Services Committee, said it’s been years since the county gained that much revenue in inboarding.
He noted that while it’s not the steadiest revenue stream to count on, the county has kept up with realizing the opportunities afforded by the jail renovation.
“When everyone works together and makes good decisions so we can realize unexpected revenue such as this, it’s a good way to run your business, and it’s good for the taxpayer,” he said.
But the extra space doesn’t mean the jail is not still seeing a steady flow of inmates daily. Lt. Spencer noted that a little more than a third of the Jefferson County jail’s population is incarcerated on drug-related offenses. There has even been a significant increase in the jail’s female population because of the drug problem, and because the jail has less space for female inmates, more outboarding is required.
“Years ago, it was considered taboo to incarcerate a female for drugs,” Lt. Spencer said.
St. Lawrence County Sheriff Kevin M. Wells said the increase in female inmates has also affected the St. Lawrence County jail. The jail averages 160 inmates housed at any given time, and nearly a third of those have been female, in some instances.
Female inmates can be more difficult to house because of inmate classification guidelines, so they contribute to increased outboarding, Sheriff Wells said.
In general, Sheriff Wells said it’s difficult to handle so many drug and mental health cases because of the lack of community resources for alternative treatment methods. The criminal justice system is not always able to get drug offenders through trial and into treatment, and even treatment options can be sparse.
“Once they are in the system, the system doesn’t know how to deal with them,” he said.
The influx of people coming through that system in the north country has kept county probation departments busy.
The Jefferson County Probation Department has made extensive use of its pre-trial release program, saving the county millions of dollars every year. The program provides services and incarceration alternatives for those who are charged with a crime and are waiting for their arraignment.
In 2015, the pre-trial release program saved the county around $4.6 million. In the third quarter of 2016, the program has saved the county $1.4 million, which equates to a combined 9,205 days that pre-trial enrollees would have otherwise spent behind bars while waiting for their trial.
St. Lawrence County Probation Director Timothy P. LePage could not be reached for comment.