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Early state prison releases may be costly to counties

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By Jimmie Earls

As the commonwealth struggles with a $1 billion budget deficit, a Kentucky House committee has approved a measure that would save the state $30 million by offering early release to as many as 2,000 non-violent, non-sexual prisoners. That proposal has given Washington County Judge-Executive John Settles some concerns as he says the state is looking to save money by putting that burden on county governments.

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“It has already impacted us to a degree and it certainly can impact us greatly,” said Settles. “It’s not just my opinion, but the state is trying to balance part of their budget on the backs of counties. The Marion County Adjustment Center has a lot of state prisoners and a lot of those are Class D felons who have already gone through the state adjudication process.”

Settles added that some county jails are able to house prisoners a lot cheaper than what the state pays.

“The counties are housing inmates for a lot less than the state-run prisons,” he said. “The last figures I saw showed $36.26 per day (per inmate) for county jails, where the state-run prisons cost $54.74 per day, so the counties can do it cheaper, but yet the state’s going to release these inmates out of the county jails which is going to put a bind on those jails because they’re not going to have enough prisoners to keep jails running in the black. There are only a few jails across the state that operate in the black, and Marion County is one of them. They do an excellent job of management.”

Settles said that the adjustment center charges Washington County $27 per inmate for daily housing.

Complicating matters is the fact that many counties use Class D felons for work release projects. Washington County uses inmate labor to man the Washington County Regional Recycling Center.

“What has happened over the last few months, there’s been so much pressure to release, and even more so now, that there’s not enough Class D felons to go around, to run a lot of the community service projects. (Marion County) Jailer (Bobby) Brady has to keep about 20 Class D felons in every day because they do food preparation and clean-up for all of the inmates. Just a few weeks ago, he had well over 80 Class D felons. He kept 20 and usually 12 went to Washington County. Various projects in Marion County used them as well, so all of them that were available were being used for community service. As of Thursday, he was down to 57 Class D felons available, and that does not allow enough to come out. We were cut to only seven yesterday (Friday) for our recycling. We can’t run our recycling program on seven inmates.”

With a shortage of inmate labor becoming available to the county, Settles said some streamlining of routes might become necessary.

“What we’re going to have to end up doing is go backwards,” he added. “We’re looking at some of our least-profitable routes and some of the things we do that are all good, but we’re going to have to scale way back and look for other sources of labor.”

Settles said with so many people out of work now, if any of these released inmates commit another crime and are jailed, the prisoners would then be the responsibility of the county, who would shoulder the cost of housing.

“The projection from the state department of corrections was that there would be 1,400 new inmates over the course of the year,” Settles said. “The house leadership now says that that will flatline. There won’t be any increase and it will save the state $30 million. But it’s going to cost the counties about that much because we won’t have the labor, and since there’s no work out there for these people, you’re going to get a lot of those coming back in. When they come back in, they come back as county inmates and we have to pay for them. Once they go through the adjudication process and are sentenced, they become state prisoners and the state starts paying for them. Up to that point, whatever county where the crime was committed in, that’s the county that has to pay for them.”

Last year, a group of county governments across Kentucky tried unsuccessfully to sue the state for expenses incurred by state prisoners housed in county facilities.

“One of the things that we as judges have been arguing for and debating about for years is trying to get the state to pay us for the time served,” Settles continued. “The average for an inmate, from once they get arrested to final sentencing, is about 14 months. So that means the county has to pay every day for those 14 months on average. In almost all cases, state prisoners are given credit for time served, so the state gives them credit but the county never gets any reimbursement.”

To make things worse, Settles said the state is considering re-classifying prisoners.

“Under the new categorization, they are going to re-classify prisoners and could potentially re-classify what is considered a violent crime or not. If a prisoner gets final sentencing, they would go before a state review board, and if they are deemed non-violent, then they will show that they have had these 12-16 months of credit for time served, maybe a couple of months on the state, and then they will be released. The state’s not going to have them very long to pay for them, and we don’t get to use them because they’re not classified. It’s hitting us double – we won’t have an available work force and we can’t afford to hire somebody. From where I sit, it’s really frustrating. We’re getting penalized on both ends of it.”

While Settles understands that the state is trying to save money, he said some legislators may not know the impact their actions will have on local and county budgets.

“I guess in their defense, a lot of them simply don’t understand the whole process,” he said. “I think some of them actually, in good faith, think that they are saving the taxpayers money, when in reality, they are balancing the state budget, but they are going to cost the taxpayers more money. They’re robbing Peter to pay Paul. And now, the legislators are becoming judge and jury. Our judicial system is one that, when someone was arrested, determined the length of time someone served and how they would make restitution and pay their debt to society. Well now, the state legislators are saying that they’re going to re-classify someone as non-violent and turn him out. It doesn’t matter what the judicial system said.”