Macon Chronicle-Herald - Macon, MO
  • Struggling with costs

  • Counties across the state face are struggling to stretch dollars for their jails. Read about it here.
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  • "She got the goldmine, I got the shaft. They split it right down the middle, and then they give her the better half."
    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 "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. Last year the state reimbursed counties more than $38 million for housing inmates who eventually end up in a Missouri Department of Corrections facility.
    A maximum reimbursement amount of $37.50 per prisoner, per day was established by statute 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 Macon County Sheriff's Department has taken maximization of resources to an extreme.
    "Manpower is our biggest expense," said Macon County Sheriff Kevin Shoemaker. "To cut corners we only have one jailer at a time, which makes their job that much more difficult. They handle dispatching, walk-in traffic, secretary work, on top of handling approximately 28 inmates at a time. And then that becomes a safety concern."
    Page 2 of 3 - But safety concerns seems to be a common issue with the Macon County jail.
    "The walls are literally crumbling around us," said Shoemaker. "This jail was built in 1909 and is not going to last much longer. It is becoming a safety hazard to both the inmates and the deputies working here."
    Cell gates malfunction, leaving them unlocked. For this reason, among others, female inmates can't be housed in the Macon County Jail, and have to be transported to the Randolph County Jail. For one month alone it costs the county approximately $7,000 to house them elsewhere, and this does not include fuel, deputy wages and vehicle usages.
    The jail safety issues have even lead to lawsuits against the county. Macon County Commissioner Drew Belt said a grand jury came to inspect all the facilities and recommended the judge condemn and close the jail.
    "Since plans were already in the works to construct a new jail and courthouse complex, we have a pass on shutting the jail down," said Belt. "However, if the project proposal is not passed by voters in the April election, the jail will be shut down."
    See "A liability to Macon County" to learn more about the new jail and courthouse project that is in the works.
    Missouri's reimbursement system is unique within bordering states. Neither Illinois nor Kansas participate in any sort of reimbursement plan. Kansas DOC Communications Director Jeremy Barclay, upon hearing of the Missouri plan, even referred to it as "kind of generous of the State of Missouri," saying that his state prefers to keep such matters "to the lowest possible government entity."
    Iowa does reimburse counties for inmates at $50 per day, though it does so less frequently and only for certain offenses. Iowa's total reimbursements to all counties last fiscal year was just over $1 million.
    The State of Missouri 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, in response.
    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.
    Macon County Commissioner Jon Dwiggins said he thinks the jail system is a problem in the state of Missouri.
    Page 3 of 3 - "The legislature only appropriates us $19.58 when they are supposed to reimburse us $35," Dwiggins said. "It was up to $22 at one time but, but we have never seen the whole $35. And inmates who are supposed to pay their board expenses most of the time have no means of paying that back."
    But Dwiggins and the other Macon County Commissioners see a bigger problem in the foreseeable future with jails, specifically, not having enough space in coming years.
    "Boone County just built a jail and now they don't have enough room," said Belt. "Linn County doesn't have a jail. Livingston County will close their jail this summer. Shelby County has a little jail in the basement of their courthouse, but it won't be enough. Jail beds in the future will get hard to find so rates will drastically increase."
    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."
    The Missouri Judge's Association did not reply to requests for comment on the matter.
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