The state owes county jails throughout Missouri more than $35 million, creating financial hardships and crowding issues.
The Missouri Department of Corrections is responsible for reimbursing county jails for costs associated with holding and transporting state prisoners. In recent years, however, the state’s budget for reimbursements has not kept up with the the amount it owes, resulting in millions of dollars of unpaid services and conversations about possible solutions.
There are three types of reimbursements a county can request from the state, according to Missouri House Bill 9. These include costs associated with transporting prisoners from local jails to state prisons, transporting extradited offenders back to Missouri and housing prisoners who are eventually sentenced to state incarceration.
Of the three categories, debt accrued from holding state prisoners in local jails is the most egregious, accounting for 93% of the state’s $35,010,247 bill.
In 2019, the Missouri budget allocated over $44 million from the state’s general revenue fund, which is generated by Missouri taxpayers, for reimbursements to county jails. Some local officials say the budget is still not meeting their demands.
“We’re a holding facility for the Missouri Department of Corrections,” Sheriff David Parrish of Lewis County said. “And we’ve grown very tired of these unfunded things that come from the state legislature. We just can’t afford to do it anymore.”
Additional problems arise due to the rate at which state prisoners are being held in county jails.
The average cost to house a prisoner in a state facility in fiscal year 2019 was $71.14 per day, according to Trevor Foley, director of the budget & finance unit at the Department of Corrections.
And while the cost varies across the state at each county jail, Missouri is only reimbursing at a rate of $22.58 per day for housing the same state prisoners.
“It costs local taxpayers $45 a day minimum to house these people here,” said Sheriff Jim Arnott of Greene County, which is owed nearly $3 million. “So we’re already doing it for half price, and now they won’t even pay their bill on the half price.”
Boone County is owed about $870,000.
The debt is one reason that counties in both rural and urban areas of Missouri are operating their jails on tight budgets, causing some local officials to scramble to find other funding and others to make harsh financial cuts.
An issue for county jails has been overcrowding in facilities, which forces some sheriffs to temporarily house prisoners in neighboring counties, accumulating more costs in transportation.
As of Sept. 30 in Greene County, Arnott had to pay to house 156 inmates in seven other county jails that had capacity, in part because of the state prisoners.
On the other hand, the state prison population decreased by 3.3% between 2017 and 2018, according the Department of Corrections’ 2018 offender profile. To further consolidate the prison system, Gov. Mike Parson initiated the closing of Crossroads Correctional Center in Cameron last January.
Arnott said that because of a backlog of state prisoners being held in Greene County and elsewhere, the burden to house inmates is being shifted to the counties.
“Those people are still going through the system; they’re just getting stuck in county jails longer,” Arnott said.
To compensate for overcrowding and other budget cuts, Greene County passed a half-cent sales tax increase in 2017 to fund local jail expansions. In a press release explaining the change, lack of state funding was cited as part of the problem.
For rural counties in Missouri with smaller populations, however, increases in sales tax aren’t enough to offset the lack of state reimbursements. Instead, local governments are having to make cuts to essential parts of their operations.
“I had in the budget to fund two patrol cars, and I can already see we’re not going to be able to do that,” Parrish said. “I have a deputy driving a patrol truck that has over 200,000 miles on it ... We need to replace a generator here at the jail. We need to replace a couple of heating and air units. You know, all those things are impacted.”
Parrish also serves as the president of the Missouri Sheriffs’ Association. While he has not been forced to lay off any of his own deputies, he hears from his counterparts in other counties that there are threats of staff cuts.
“I think it’s an unintended thing. I don’t think anyone goes to the Capitol and says, ‘I’m going to make sure that my county doesn’t get the proper reimbursements.’ But too much focus has been given to state agencies and state bureaucrats,” Parrish said.
Not all counties are experiencing such adversity. Keith Hoskins, the detention director of Boone County jail, said his operations aren’t suffering because of the debt.
Various programs Boone County developed as alternatives to jail time have limited the need for expansions and budget cuts. More than half of the county’s prisoners are currently serving time under these methods, according to Boone County’s weekly detention report. This includes inmates moved to other counties’ jails and alternative programs like Reality House Programs Inc., electronic home monitoring and bond supervision.
The state is also launching an optional electronic home monitoring pilot program in hopes of reducing jail costs and limiting any future debt.
Additionally, the current state budget indicates that if any money remains in the budget for reimbursing current jail costs, counties that participate in the electronic monitoring program will receive extra reimbursement at the end of the 2019-20 budget.
June Pitchford, Boone County’s auditor, said that last year she took part in preliminary discussions about the pilot program. She learned, however, that because Boone County already has an established home monitoring system, it likely will be unable to qualify for these leftover payments.
“Those of us in Boone County feel strongly that we’ve been working for years and years on trying to control and contain our jail costs, limiting the need for expansion of that facility and operating it as efficiently and as effectively as we can,” said Pitchford, “so it is frustrating when the state is unable or unwilling to give funds.”
Arnott said he is unsure of how successful the program would be, as his jail is currently housing inmates charged with serious crimes, such as rape and murder, and repeat offenders who are unsafe to be released into the community.
As counties work to manage their budgets without these reimbursements, Foley says the Department of Corrections is initiating discussions focused on solutions.
“There have been lots of individual meetings. It comes up at virtually every appropriations hearing at every session. It’s a regular conversation piece,” Foley said. “I don’t know if there’s any agreement on what the next step is, but a lot of people are focused on wanting some kind of next step.”
In addition, Parson has allocated $1.7 million of general revenue funds to help chip away at the $35 million debt.
Members of the Missouri Budget Committee recently heard testimonies from the Department of Corrections, the Office of Administration and various local officials discussing the need to pay the rest of the debt.
Parrish said one of the most important things the state can do moving forward is seriously listening to the concerns of local officials and understanding how it affects local taxpayers.
“They can tell you what’s really happening on the ground...” Parrish said, “and how it’s very difficult to do things when there’s a lack of funding.”
Supervising editor is Mark Horvit.