The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

January 19, 2013

Missouri sheriffs say state payments don’t cover costs to house prisoners

By Susan Redden
Globe Staff Writer

JOPLIN, Mo. — Oatmeal for breakfast.

Bologna for lunch.

Beans and cornbread for dinner.

That’s the menu just about every day at the Lawrence County Jail.

Sheriff Brad DeLay explained that buying those staples in bulk saves the county money.

The county budgets between $600,000 and $700,000 annually for its 54-bed jail, but still loses $80,000 to $90,000 a year because of bills related to boarding prisoners.

The bare-bones menu is not the only way DeLay and other Missouri sheriffs are looking to make ends meet these days.

Missouri is shorting counties, they say, and the Missouri Sheriffs’ Association wants the state to step up to the plate.

Currently, Missouri pays counties $19.58 per day, until prisoners are transported to the Missouri Department of Corrections, for housing in county jails those who have been convicted of state crimes. But sheriffs point out that their costs — food, housing and sometimes medical expenses for prisoners — are much higher than that, forcing counties to eat the difference.

“I’d certainly like to see the state do more,” Newton County Sheriff Ken Copeland said. “Our costs are closer to $30 a day. That’s what we charge cities inside the county if we house their prisoners; the charge for outside the county is $45 (per day).”

In Newton County, the noon meal is a choice between bologna and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

Copeland said the state paid Newton County just more than $32,000 for prisoner housing last year; the overall cost to operate the jail was nearly $922,000.

At the Jasper County Jail, the cost for basic prisoner housing is about $34 per day, according to Capt. Becky Stevens, who supervises jail operations. Last year, state reimbursements for prisoner housing totaled just more than $835,000, while the budget to operate the jail was nearly $2.3 million.

“Housing prisoners is an expensive proposition,” said Jasper County Sheriff Randee Kaiser, who took office Jan. 1.

“When you take into account food, bedding, medical services and the cost of staffing, it’s a lot more than $20 per day, so I’d like to see it increased.”

State Rep. Galen Higdon, R-St. Joseph, acknowledged that some state costs are being carried by county taxpayers.

“That’s one of the things we’re looking at.”

House committee

Higdon is chairman of the Interim House Committee on Sheriff’s Operations, which will propose legislation this session to address compensation as well as a host of other issues for law enforcement agencies. The committee has completed its report, but Higdon said he did not want to discuss specific recommendations until all members have signed off on the draft.

“I think we’ll be making some recommendations by the end of next month,” said Higdon, who ran for the House after serving 30 years as a deputy with the Buchanan County Sheriff’s Office.

Among the top priorities is state compensation.

Vernon County built a new, larger jail several years ago and houses prisoners under contract with several other counties as well as the state, said Sheriff Jason Mosher. Vernon County is charging other counties between $35 and $45 per day. When there are larger numbers of prisoners, Mosher said he’s able to hold costs for county prisoners to about $25 per day — still more than the county gets reimbursed from the state.

“It needs to be more,” said Mosher, who took office Jan. 1.

State law allows payments of up to $37.50, and until spending cutbacks several years ago, state payments were authorized for up to $22 per day, said Mick Covington, executive director of the Missouri Sheriffs’ Association.

“Whatever the (funding) gap is, it’s left to county taxpayers to pay; there’s no place else to go,” he said.

Covington said sheriffs want to see more of a partnership between the state and counties.

“There is no one housed in a county jail who’s there on a county crime,” he said. “They’re state crimes prosecuted by state prosecutors. But I think legislators are receptive; they realize there’s a gap.”

The issue also is under study in the Missouri Senate, where a committee on Thursday considered legislation that would divert income tax refunds and lottery winnings from prisoners to help pay off their county jail debts.

Counties are turning to the state to help with another burden as well: the medical cost of treating prisoners. The Missouri Sheriffs’ Association has suggested allowing jails to be part of the state government’s contract for prison medical services.

Other proposals include establishing a central collection agency to intercept tax refunds and lottery winnings going to inmates to help cover the costs of their incarceration; levying a booking fee on inmates; and encouraging judges to order criminals to pay back some of the costs of housing them.

DeLay said if people can find money to buy alcohol, cigarettes or illegal drugs then “they can find the money to take care of some of their debts that they owe to society.”

Copeland doesn’t think getting prisoners to pay more of their own costs is realistic.

“It would just be something else that would take time and create paperwork, but wouldn’t generate much in payments.”

Court battle

The legislation being considered by the Interim House Committee on Sheriff’s Operations wouldn’t have spared Jasper County a lawsuit. That’s because the lawsuit stemmed from a dispute between two counties — not a county and the state.

Earlier this month, a $140,000 claim by Henry County wound up in Jasper County Circuit Court.

Claiming the county jail was overcrowded, former Jasper County Sheriff Archie Dunn in 2011 began transferring prisoners to other counties that had room, but he did so without any contract or approval from the County Commission.

Commissioners warned Dunn as well as other counties that they were not going to pay, yet he continued to transfer prisoners, and Henry County took them for a while.

The two counties ultimately agreed to a $50,000 settlement from Jasper County, whose officials say they will try to recover the money in a lawsuit against Dunn.

One of the issues raised by Henry County in the suit was that Jasper County kept the state reimbursement money for county prisoners being housed in the distant jail.

Licensing and pay

In addition to boosting the state’s reimbursement rate, sheriffs also are urging higher salaries for sheriffs — particularly those in smaller counties. The average pay statewide is $50,000. The lowest wage is $24,102 in northwestern Missouri’s Worth County; the highest is $110,000 in Boone County, which includes Columbia.

The Missouri Sheriffs’ Association said a good starting point for the discussion would be a salary of $75,000 because it aligns with what sergeants in the Missouri State Highway Patrol make. Currently, 106 of the 114 sheriffs in the state make less than that. They also suggest linking sheriff salaries to full-time prosecutors and trial judges so they are not left behind when other public safety officials get a raise.

Copeland said his annual salary is $61,700, which is less than that paid to police chiefs in Neosho and Seneca. The Neosho police chief’s salary is $72,245.

“And I have 77 employees, a $3.5 million budget and 640 square miles we have to patrol,” Copeland said. “But there’s a whole lot more sheriffs worse off than I am.”

Kaiser makes $65,280, which includes a 2 percent wage hike that went into effect at the first of the year. The new sheriff previously was an assistant chief of the Carthage police department. The salary range for police chief there is between $50,000 and $69,000.

In 2008, Missouri lawmakers sought to boost the pay of sheriff’s deputies by creating a $10 charge for serving legal documents. Lawmakers passed the fee after learning that deputies in 91 Missouri counties were paid so little that some of them qualified for public assistance. The statewide average wage for a deputy that year was $22,262 annually.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.