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Unhappy with the increasing demands on its lawyers and sheriff's deputies, Niagara County is threatening to refuse to participate in "specialty courts," such as drug and domestic violence courts.

County Manager Gregory D. Lewis said the county needs to have some say when these courts are created, because its assistant district attorneys and public defenders must staff them, and deputies are assigned to work security and transport jail inmates to the sessions.

He said State Supreme Court Justice Sharon S. Townsend, administrative judge for Western New York, is expected to attend a County Legislature committee meeting June 1 to hear the county's concerns.

The Legislature resolution, currently tabled in committee pending Townsend's visit, says the county won't participate in any more specialty courts unless it gets 90 days' notice of the schedule and the personnel demands. Lewis and a Legislature committee would have to approve each new court.

All three cities in the county have drug courts, and Niagara Falls also offers domestic violence and mental health courts. Others are reportedly in the works in the cities and towns.

Sheriff Thomas A. Beilein commented, "Before you say, 'We're going to start another specialty court,' the people involved in the logistics need to sit down and say, 'Wait. Is this possible?' "

"I'm not complaining about the goals," District Attorney Matthew J. Murphy III said, "but we're asking that the county be included in the planning process."

Townsend said the general concept is to promote treatment for nonviolent offenders instead of throwing them in jail. The judge still has the power to jail defendants who don't follow treatment orders.

"The purpose of a drug court is so you can have a process in place for them to get treatment for the problem that brought them to court in the first place," Townsend said. "People get their lives back together instead of sitting in jail."

She said a mental health court has similar aims.

She asserted the programs save the county money by keeping people out of jail and preventing children from being sent to foster care while their parents are prosecuted.

Beilein said it's not always true that specialty courts keep people out of jail. He said on a recent day, the Niagara County Jail housed 50 inmates being sanctioned for violating specialty court orders, although he admitted that without specialty courts, many of them probably would have been in jail anyway.

He noted, "Specialty courts don't meet at the same time as regular courts. They're another day, another trip."

Although he acknowledged they can be useful, Beilein said people like him need to have a say.


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