“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.”
Since Linn County does not have a jail facility, prisoners in Linn County are currently held in the Brookfield Police Department’s cells, or at a special holding area at the Marceline Police Department, and then transferred by Linn County Sheriff’s Deputies to the Chariton County Jail in Keytesville.
Page 2 of 3 - Linn County, up until the past couple of years, had housed prisoners in Chillicothe at the Livingston County Jail. When that facility closed, Sheriff Tom Parks and the Linn County Commissioners decided to send prisoners south.
“It costs Linn County $30 per day to jail an inmate, which is 50 cents cheaper than we paid in Livingston County,” Parks said. “If they aren’t sentenced to prison, we don’t get reimbursement from the state at all.”
Sheriff Parks believes he has done his best to make the most of the little amount of funding his department receives. But it is technology that Parks credits with saving the Linn County Sheriff’s Department the most money.
“The biggest thing we have done to cut costs is utilizing video arraignment,” Parks said. “This cut us back from transporting prisoners six times to two. This has saved our department a lot of money. Even the prisons have caught on to this.”
Another thing that has cut transport costs is fewer transports. Parks attributes this to lower bond amounts. However, Parks notes that there are still plenty of criminals to transport to jail.
“The judges are good about setting reasonable bonds that allow more people to make bond,” Parks said. “That has also cut our travel. But, there are still plenty of people that we have to transport to jail.”
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.”
Page 3 of 3 - “It is a black hole that [counties] just pour money into,” he said.
Rep. Mike Lair (R-007) was at a loss to explain the current financial setup for Missouri’s county jails.
“It’s the way the system was set up,” Lair said. “This isn’t my area of specialty, but I have served on an interim committee to the sheriff’s departments, and learned a lot from them.”
Having worked on the aforementioned committee, Lair said he sympathizes with the plight of small-town law enforcement.
“They are terribly underfunded, and don’t make much money,” Lair said. “Everything they do reflects the state, and not the county. When Livingston County does away with their jail due to expense, you know something’s wrong. It just doesn’t make sense.”
But Lair did point out some positive things that the legislature had done for sheriff’s departments and their deputies.
“We had introduced legislation three years ago that dealt with funding, and passed a minimum wage for deputies, which benefitted them,” Lair said.
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.
- Dustin Watson contributed to this report for the Linn County Leader