Sheriffs Ask State to Stop Shorting Them on Jail Costs

Sheriffs from counties across Missouri called on state lawmakers Monday to find a way to pay back nearly $35 million in debt connected to their county jail operations.

The state owes the money to counties, as well as the city of St. Louis, whose jails have held state prisoners while they await trial. The backlog also includes money owed to counties for transporting prisoners from local jails to state prison facilities, as well as money spent collecting suspects who are arrested in other states.

“This has been a long-term problem,” Lewis County Sheriff David Parrish told members of the House Subcommittee on County Prison Per Diem Reimbursement.

The panel is working to develop a recommendation for repayment that will be considered by the House Budget Committee as it crafts the state’s $30.9 billion spending plan.

The decision is one more pressure point facing Gov. Mike Parson and the GOP-controlled Legislature as they work to put together a spending plan for the fiscal year beginning July 1. The state’s public defender system says it needs an estimated 300 more attorneys to effectively represent poor people in court. Correctional officers are owed more than $114 million in back pay stemming from a lawsuit guards brought against the Department of Corrections.

And, Parson did not call for an estimated $3 million to give raises to low-paid workers at the state’s nursing homes for military veterans in order to stop a turnover rate of about 80%.

At the same time, Republican lawmakers continue to debate various attempts to reduce the state’s tax rates on individuals and corporations, resulting in a potential decrease in revenues.

In January, Parson, a former sheriff, recommended funneling an extra $22 million to the fund to pay down the debt.

In St. Louis, the city is owed $2.4 million, according to figures provided by the Missouri Department of Corrections. St. Louis County is owed $3.3 million. St. Charles has been shortchanged $1.1 million, while Jefferson County is out $455,000.

While Parson’s budget proposal is a start toward closing the gap, Parrish and other county officials say the state’s failure to pay the full amount has led to financial hardships and overcrowding in county lock-ups.

The daily reimbursement rate hasn’t risen above $22 for the past two decades. The actual cost is closer to at least $60 per day.

“I think we’re open to looking at changing the process,” said Trent Watson of the Missouri Association of Counties. “We need a little more help from the state.”

Counties also have to pay for the cost of health care for indigent prisoners. In some cases, counties are holding suspects who are, for example, pregnant or are undergoing kidney dialysis.

“That is a huge cost,” Watson said.

Callaway County Commissioner Gary Jungermann said some counties are hiring fewer deputies because of the financial pinch. At the same time, many counties are considering expanding their jails to deal with overcrowding.

Jungermann said the state could consider state-operated regional jails to house offenders who are picked up by the Missouri State Highway Patrol, rather than leaving that cost to the counties.

“County taxpayers are required to do the heavy lifting,” said Parrish, who is president of the Missouri Sheriff’s Association. “We feel like it has to be a partnership between us.”

By Kurt Erickson | stltoday.com

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