Little state support leaves county jails struggling with costs

"She got the goldmine, / I got the shaft. / They split it right down the middle, / And then they give her the better half. — "She Got the Goldmine (I Got the Shaft)," by Jerry Reed.
Mick Covington, executive director of the Missouri Sheriff's Association, says "it" reminds him of "that old song."
When Covington says "that old song," he is talking of Jerry Reed's "She Got the Goldmine (I Got the Shaft)." The 1982 piece is a satire on divorce, and became Reed's third and final No. 1 country hit. The "it" Covington is referring to? The relationship between the State of Missouri and its county jail system.
"I think the counties are getting the shaft," Covington said.
Counties across the state face similar financial situations and struggle to stretch dollars to their limit to provide necessary services. But those required services go beyond just keeping county roads and bridges passable. Housing prisoners can cost counties hundreds of thousands of dollars annually, and what little money they do receive from the state doesn't measure up to meet rising costs of maintenance, food and inmate medical expenses.
There are 103 county jailing facilities in the state of Missouri. In fiscal year 2013, the state paid counties $38,060,596 for the housing of inmates who later end up in a Missouri State Department of Correction facility. According to state statute, that money is appropriated through the Missouri Department of Corrections.
A maximum reimbursement amount of $37.50 per prisoner, per day was established July 1, 1997, but counties have never seen amounts close to that figure. According to Missouri DOC spokesman David Owen, reimbursements in FY 2013 were $19.58.
Covington estimates actual inmate costs run closer to at least $40-$45 per day. In contrast, he said the federal government reimburses counties $50-$75 per day for housing federal prisoners.
While the reimbursement total has increased little (it was $17 in 1996), the same cannot be said for the cost of food, utilities, hygiene products and health care that must be provided to inmates when they reach the pre-trial detainee stage. Counties also receive no reimbursements for those inmates who stay in their facilities but who are sentenced to probation; those who stay in the county facility, but who are later discharged with time served; those sentenced to time in the county jail; or those who are judged innocent of their alleged crimes and released from the county facility.
County jail inmates are required to pay counties for their cost of imprisonment, according to statute, but Convington said those persons often cannot pay their jail costs, even when put on a payment plan. They just don't have the money.
Neither do the counties.
"It's a very heavy economic drain on the counties," Covington said. "It's becoming a very serious problem. I'd say every sheriff in the state is maximizing what they have."
The present Audrain County Jail opened in 1999. During FY 2013 they were reimbursed at the established rate of $19.58 per prisoner, per day. The Audrain County Jail benefits from the unqualified support of the County Commission so the deficit does not impact them to as harsh of a degree as perhaps other counties experience. However, Audrain County Sherrif Stuart Miller quickly points out that the jail is still very careful with the money and takes every effort to "pinch pennies" as needed. "We have deputies and adminstrators who handle minor repairs 'in house'," he said. "We do the best we can with what we have."
The state is currently at its apex in regards to prisoner housing, Covington said. "Busting at the seams," is the term he used. Because of this, the DOC is sending certain prison inmates back down to the county jails, or letting them out on probation or parole.
"Any offender delivered to and received by the Department of Corrections is taken into the department's custody," Owen said.
When asked his opinion on why the state government has not stepped up to the plate in order to rectify the monetary situation, Covington said he thinks "it's a matter of legislators not realizing the magnitude of the problem."
"It is a black hole that [counties] just pour money into," he said.
Audrain County Commissioner Steve Hobbs indicates that any shortfall the jail's $1,070, 593 operating budget incurs is made up from the general revenue fund. "It's no secret the monies could be used elsewhere," he said." If we were reimbursed at the cost, we could do so much more throughout the county."
Mo. Gov. Jay Nixon's office sent out the following statement in response to inqueries:
"[Governor] Nixon has been a strong supporter of Missouri law enforcement during his 27 years in public office, and that includes working to ensure that those agencies have appropriate resources. We will continue reviewing each issue as the Governor prepares to submit his proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2015 to the General Assembly in January."Covington said the current model is unsustainable.
"I think the pertinent thing here is that the criminal and civil justice system in the state of Missouri is a partnership between the state and local governments," Covington said. "For some reason, it's out of whack. There has to be an awakening on behalf of the state and on behalf of the citizens that the state work towards that 50/50 relationship. How they get there is the process called democracy, and that process needs to take place.
"We cannot continue this way."