Lawmakers grilled the state Commissioner of Corrections on Wednesday not about state prisons but county jails, and one suggested statutory changes to allow more state inmates to be housed in county jails.

The Interim Joint Committee on Local Government peppered Commissioner LaDonna Thompson about Department of Corrections responses to a management audit of county jails four years ago by state Auditor Crit Luallen.

Chairman Steven Riggs, D-Louisville, quizzed Thompson repeatedly on what DOC has done to implement several recommendations in the audit: uniform financial systems, cumulative population reports, review of new or expanded jails by the state, and review of medical services.

Thompson went through the list pointing out what the state has done — and not done — often noting that legal responsibility for many of them lie with local governments.

“It’s not just a county government issue, it’s also a state government issue,” Riggs responded.

But the one recommendation in Luallen’s audit which got scant discussion Wednesday was that the state move to a “unified” corrections system — another way of saying the state should maintain all the jails.

If anything, the committee’s members seemed interested in moving in the other direction. Sen. Julian Carroll, D-Frankfort, asked Thompson what it costs the state to house prisoners in state facilities — $50 a day or $19,000 a year on average, she said. And in county jails, Carroll asked. Thompson said around $34 a day or $11,000 a year.

“The issue is why aren’t we taking advantage of lower costs of jails to help the jails,” Carroll said. “We could save $8,000 a year. I’m positive there’s capacity out there.”

Thompson responded that county jails often do not provide some of the services that state prisons do — such things as substance abuse and education programs.

The state pays counties about $32.50 to house Class D and C felons, those sentenced to less than five years for generally non-violent crimes. Carroll suggested changing the law to allow other classifications of prisoners also to be housed.

Counties which accept state prisoners often want more of them to subsidize the cost of housing county or misdemeanor prisoners and some, like Barren County, are building larger jails planning to pay their debt service using state per diem funding for state prisoners. Meanwhile, the state prison population has exploded; it reached a peak of more than 22,500 inmates in 2008 before the legislature approved less stringent parole credits and the state released more than 1,300 prisoners. About 8,000 of the 22,500 were in county jails and that number has fallen to around 7,000 this year.

But county jails are breaking the bank in some counties. And Vince Lang, executive director of the County Judge/Executives Association, did not see much help forthcoming from the legislature.

“They’re broke so they’re looking to the jails to solve the problem and the jails and counties are going broke, too,” Lang said.

Lang’s organization has sought legislation to increase state payments to county jails, both for county and state prisoners. They have also suggested the state gradually assume control of all incarcerations, relieving counties of the cost of jails. The County Jailers’ Association opposes such a move.

A few county jails make money — such large facilities as Henderson County, Grayson County and Christian County jails house federal prisoners or prisoners from other states. The federal government pays jails more than $100 per day to keep their prisoners. But most jails are subsidized from county general funds and with rising populations, medical and food costs, the jails are siphoning off money fiscal courts want for quality of life projects such as parks or infrastructure needs such as water and sewer lines.

That is why they are looking for state help — or a state takeover. But that means more cost to the state which is suffering one of the worst fiscal crises in decades, having reduced the general fund by over $800 million in the past 18 months and facing perhaps another $1 billion or more shortfall for the coming biennium.

“We need a more unified system to be as efficient as we can be,” said Michael Foster, Christian County attorney and president of the Kentucky Association of Counties. “One way to do it is for the state to take over the system but you don’t have the money to do it. It’s not going to happen anytime soon.”

Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at rellis@cnhi.com. The Richmond Register is a CNHI newspaper.

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