Leader Blues

Friday, November 13, 2009

TOP STORY >> Crowded jails worry sheriffs

By JOHN HOFHEIMER AND JOAN MCCOY
Leader staff writers

Money to reimburse counties for housing prisoners sentenced to state facilities will run out at the end of December, which would mean counties would bear the entire cost until July 2010, the beginning of the next fiscal year.

Prison officials are expected to ask the state legislature to increase the reimbursement fund by allowing them to carry forward $2 million they have in last year’s budget. They also want a supplemental appropriation of $6 million for reimbursements through the end of the fiscal year.

If they don’t get it, White County Sheriff Ricky Shourd says he has money built into his budget to continue caring for state prisoners even without reimbursement. Letting those state prisoners go free is not an option, he said.

What concerns him, he said, is the state’s plan not to open more than 300 beds because that could potentially increase the number of state inmates he must house.

If crowding became a problem, misdemeanor and nonviolent offenders could be released from the jail in White County, said Capt. Clayton Edwards, administrator at the White County Detention Center.

But that isn’t likely to happen because the three-year-old jail has 285 beds, not counting room for 40 prisoners in intake.

“The sheriff has authority to relieve overcrowding, but overcrowding is not an issue here,” Edwards said.

The issue is the reimbursement rate that has not been raised since 2001 and is only about two-thirds of the actual cost of keeping prisoners.

As of Tuesday afternoon, Edwards said he was holding 200 prisoners. Of that number, 58 had been convicted of felonies and sentenced to prison, but the number has been as high as 80. And they often wait for space in a state facility for eight or nine months.

The cost per day for each inmate is $42.80, he said. The state reimburses $28 a day for its prisoners and if that money stops in December as expected then the whole cost of taking care of the state prisoners will have to come out of the half-cent sales tax voters approved in 2004 for law enforcement, not just part of it as it does now.

But the county will pay because it has no choice. The state requires counties to house prisoners waiting for a bed in prison.

The only problem possible with the number of beds available is an imbalance of gender and type of offense, he said. Women must be separated from men and misdemeanor offenders must be separated from felons.

The Pulaski County Detention Center held about 215 inmates for the state this week, down about 100 from a month ago, according to Sheriff’s spokesman John Rehrauer. “They’ve been paying very regularly.”

He said he didn’t think delayed payment for the state inmates would create a big problem for the county. “We’re coming down to the end of the budget year. We have to watch every penny and this is another obstacle to making ends meet,” Rehrauer said.

“State inmates usually account for about half of my population,” said Lonoke County Sheriff Jim Roberson. Right now I have about 25.”

Roberson said the county would take the state inmates on to the state Correction Department if it can’t pay toward their upkeep.

“We go through this quite often,” said Lonoke County Judge Charlie Troutman. “In the past the Arkansas Department of Correction has been a little late paying. Right now there are probably 1,500 state inmates backed up in county jails.”

He said that in the past, the Association of County Judges has asked the state Legislature to come up with some money to pay the counties.

“If it doesn’t get too far, we could cover (the added expense for a while,)” Troutman said. “We had 18 state inmates when (Jerry Dale Luker) got hurt and died. Luker was a state inmate temporarily housed at Lonoke County Detention Center awaiting transfer when he was injured, transported to UAMS and later died.

The state medical examiner has called his death a homicide, and the State Police are investigating. His family has announced its intention to file a lawsuit.

Lonoke County is currently advertising for bids for a new, 136-bed detention center, Troutman said. Bids will be opened Dec. 8 and Troutman estimated it would take about 10 months to build.

The city of Lonoke usually has about three or four state inmates in its jail, according to Mayor Wayne McGee. The city is more likely to have a number of holds for the federal Immigration and Naturalization Service.

“I don’t look for it to affect us much,” he said.