By ERIC TICHY
Special to the OBSERVER
MAYVILLE - Space remains scarce inside the Chautauqua County Jail.
Sheriff Joseph Gerace
At near or full capacity in certain housing units, the jail has been shipping inmates to surrounding facilities. The unit that holds women inmates remains overcrowded, while costs of medical care for the expanding population continues to skyrocket.
"We need to work diligently to try and control the number of people in this jail," said Chautauqua County Sheriff Joe Gerace, who estimates half of his yearly budget goes toward operating the jail.
"We are as maxed out as we can be," he said. "We need to engage in some conversations soon because a lot of our influxes (of inmates) come in September, October and November."
Gerace recently pitched to the County Legislature creating a task force, composed of government officials and nonprofit organizations, to ease the jail's population. The goal would be to find alternative forms of incarceration.
The sheriff said he hopes to get support from legislators, and expects to "get into serious discussions" with the task force by next month.
"Let me be clear, we have people in the jail that deserve to be here and have had their chance," Gerace said. "But we need to find a way to reduce the number of people that are coming through here."
Legislator John Runkle, R-Stockton, questioned the role of local judges who ultimately hold the power to commit offenders to the jail. Gerace said he has remained in contact with area justices, and said a task force would allow direct communication with municipalities to explore alternative forms of incarceration.
"I have no power to commit people or release people from the jail," the sheriff said. "It comes down to these small towns and judges who make those decisions.
"With a task force we can get people at the table; we have to be aggressive, and we can't do this alone."
Nonprofit groups being considered for the task force include The Resource Center and Chautauqua Opportunities.
"We play a large role and are completely connected with the jail," said Michelle Williams, director of mental health at The Resource Center. "We provide a lot of services that help inmates re-integrate into society when they are released."
Williams said the group also offers probation and psychiatric services within the jail. "I think the presence has made a difference in the number of people who commit crimes once they are released," Williams said, noting the group would take part in a task force if asked.
The Sheriff's Office, meanwhile, has taken a proactive approach to reduce overcrowding. The jail this year rolled out an ankle-monitoring system for inmates not considered a risk. Gerace said a list of a dozen inmates recently was given to the District Attorney's Office, which signed off on half of them.
The ankle monitors use GPS, and helps officials keep track of inmates outside the jail. The system, however, isn't fool-proof.
"As soon as one of the inmates was released they immediately got into trouble," the sheriff said. "But it's a lot less expensive than keeping so many of them locked up here."
For a state-recognized pilot project, the Legislature last summer approved funding to keep a part-time assistant district attorney inside Jamestown City Court for arraignments. The Public Defender's Office used its own funding through Indigent Legal Services to have a member in the courtroom.
In theory, having both sides present during arraignment can help judges determine those who should be remanded to jail and those who can be released under supervision. By freeing up beds at the jail, the county could lure federal inmates, who bring in as much as $100 a day to house.
Chautauqua County District Attorney David Foley said the pilot likely has kept potential inmates out of jail, but conceded it was hard to measure its success.
"I think it's important that both parties are in court," Foley said, "but it's hard to quantify the data. There is so much that has to be taken into account."
Gerace, however, said only a few federal inmates have been brought in due to a lack of space.
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