Tuesday morning, the Commonwealth’s Department of Corrections Deputy Commissioner for Community Services Rodney Ballard had a mixed message for the Lincoln County Fiscal Court on building a new jail. He started out making an analogy about how he was in Stanford to tell people not to “jump out of a perfectly good aircraft,” then went on to describe a future where a new jail is all but inevitable for the county. “You are lucky to have Jailer David Gooch running your jail. It would have closed a long time ago; your infrastructure is crumbling around you,” he said.
The warning Ballard brought is that the days of funding county prisoners by housing state prisoners at a profit might be coming to an end; Kentucky legislators will soon be considering the recommendations of a joint task force that could result in the reduction of the state prisoner population from 22,000 to 17,000. A 25 percent cut in state prisoners would free up more state-run prison beds and reduce the number of state prisoners farmed out to county and regional jails, cutting deeply into small jail revenues. In the last decade, the cost of running the jail has gone from nothing to over a half-million dollars a year, and the loss of state revenues would be devastating.
“Don’t build a jail based on someone else paying you revenue,” Ballard warned.
Ballard said that a joint task force, made up of executive, legislative and judicial representatives, has been working with the Pew Center on the States, a Washington based nonprofit organization focused on improving public policy, to review the Kentucky Penal Code and the state’s Controlled Substance Act to look at the nature of crime, sentencing and recidivism in Kentucky. The task force is ready to present its recommendations and, if they are accepted, the cost of running the county jail and plans for building a new jail will change drastically.
One of the most significant changes would be reducing many drug-related offenses from Class-D felonies to misdemeanors. Felons, prosecuted by the state, are jailed at the Commonwealth’s expense. Many Class-D felons are farmed out to regional and county jails, and serve as a revenue stream for local lock-ups. At more than $30 a day, state prisoners significantly offset the cost a county incurs housing its own prisoners.
This could be a double whammy for local jails; in addition to a reduction in the number of state funded prisoners farmed out to the counties, the perpetrators of what are now misdemeanors will have to be housed at the local taxpayers’ expense.
Ballard told the court and audience that cost savings realized through a greatly reduced prison population would be spent, in part, on drug abuse prevention, counseling for prisoners and support services for those who are paroled or serve their sentences to term. “In the old days, we would lock up the town drunk for 90 days and when he got out, what did you have? A drunk who’d been sober for 90 days,” Ballard said, explaining that to reduce recidivism, more needed to be done to prevent or mitigate the affects of drug abuse. “There just aren’t criminals going into county jails,” Ballard said, “we have people with mental health issues, and drug and alcohol problems going to county jails; it’s a dumping ground.”
The Lincoln County Drug Free Coalition members present weren’t buying any of it. Paul Hall argued that this was not the time to be reducing the significance of illegal drug use, telling Ballard that crime was on the rise in Lincoln County and it was fueled by drug use. Ballard’s contention that crime was actually on the decrease was met with a sea of shaking heads. Magistrate Johnnie Padgett agreed with the coalition, and told Ballard, “If we build a 200-bed jail we could fill it up, and that would break the bank. If Daryl (Day) put everyone in jail who needed it, we wouldn’t have enough money to scrape our roads.”
County Attorney Daryl Day weighed in, saying that no amount of counseling is going to significantly reduce drug use. “I’ve been a prosecutor for 12 years and I can tell you, you aren’t going to rehabilitate someone who doesn’t want to be rehabilitated. I get 12-15 requests a week to go to rehab; they don’t want to go to rehab, they don’t want to be in jail. We are wasting money.”
When Ballard said that many young people in jail on drug charges were first- time offenders, Day jumped at him. “Let me tell you, most of those people are third- or fourth-time offenders, they are just first -time offenders because it was the first time they were caught since they turned 18.”
Judge Executive Jim Adams summed up the defeated mood in the courtroom saying, “I think what we need to take away from this is that no one is going to come and help us.”
When Ballard’s presentation was completed Jailer David Gooch presented his quarterly jail report and told the Fiscal Court that he was still ready to move forward with a new jail. Reminding the court that interest rates and construction costs are at record lows, Gooch said that he will now begin developing plans for a smaller jail.
After the meeting, Gooch said that taxpayers in Lincoln County have to realize that demands for strong law enforcement, strong prosecution and stiff sentencing all result in high jailing costs. He also pointed out the high societal costs the task force’s proposed plans would have.
“The mass release of Class-D prisoners from county jails? I don’t think the citizens will accept that; it will be a risk to public safety,” he said.
But Gooch acknowledges that someone, somewhere has to pay for the cost of jailing, and that might lead to higher taxes if the county has to go it alone.