On Thursday, Justice Cabinet Secretary J. Michael Brown told county judge/executives about moves the state is undertaking to save on prison costs. Those will save the state about $10.4 million but it will come from county budgets in the form of fewer payments to counties to house state prisoners.

So Thursday night, Kentucky County Judge/Executives Association members voted unanimously to sue the state, according to Greenup County Judge/Executive Bobby Carpenter who serves on the KCJEA executive committee, which unanimously recommended the suit to the full membership.

“It’s nothing against the administration of (Gov.) Steve Beshear,” Carpenter said Friday. “We’re just hurting. We’ve waited patiently for the legislature to do something for years. We waited and waited – and we just finally decided this would be it.”

Vince Lang, Executive Director of KCJEA, said the suit focuses on credit for time served, seeking to have the state pay for time inmates serve in county jails before conviction. Felons become the state’s responsibility only after conviction, but they are often granted credit against their total sentences for the time they spent awaiting trial and the state pays counties nothing for that time.

“There may be some other issues, too,” Lang said. “We’re going to sit down with our legal counsel to discuss the issues and who to sue, but the timetable will probably be fairly short, maybe as soon as 30 or 60 days.”

Larue County Judge/Executive Tommy Turner said county officials’ frustrations have been building for some time “and it just boiled over. It’s gotten to the point that many of our counties feel they just don’t have anywhere to turn.”

Some counties spend as much as 60 percent of general fund budgets subsidizing jails. Others do better, primarily by housing state inmates at $32.51 a day from the state for each state inmate. But the state is searching for money to fund its services and has begun looking at placing more prisoners in in-home incarceration and granting more and earlier paroles for others. That’s where the $10.4 million in savings comes from. But nearly all of those prisoners would’ve been housed in county jails and the $10.4 million paid to the counties.

“I understand it’s a $10.4 million savings to the state but, for the most part, that’s what would have been paid to the counties,” Turner said.

Both Carpenter and Lang said they would prefer the state to take over the jail system. But county jailers oppose that move as has the Department of Corrections in the past. In any event, the legislature hasn’t the money to do that. And counties can’t wait any longer, Lang and Turner said.

Carpenter said a six-person committee – himself, Turner, Lang, KCJEA President N. E. Reed of Edmonson County, Darrell Link of Grant County and Gary Moore of Boone County – will meet soon with their attorney, Brent Caldwell. They’ll discuss whom to sue as well as what to ask beyond a requirement the state pay for the time before sentencing.

“Some feel like it should be the administration because it has the Department of Corrections and some say the legislature,” Turner said.

All three men – Lang, Carpenter and Turner – went out of their way to say their litigation isn’t aimed at Beshear’s administration. Carpenter said Beshear hasn’t had the time to make any changes in his first six months in office.

Joe Meyer, policy advisor to Beshear, met with the executive committee Thursday at its request to discuss how the state will handle state inmates in county jails, what the administration can do to hold down inmate healthcare costs and the need for a uniform bail schedule which would allow more prisoners awaiting trial to be released on bail. Later that day, Beshear promised the association’s members the state will aggressively negotiate a contract with the health network to lower costs and he has asked the Supreme Court to establish the uniform bail schedule.

“My reports to them were pretty positive,” Meyer said. “They seemed more angry with the General Assembly than with us.”

But it was too little, too late to head off the suit.

“I think everybody’s just looking to get this issue resolved,” said Reed, the KCJEA President from Edmonson County. “We’ve been waiting for a number of years and there’s been no action. It just drags on and drags on. We just decided it was time.”

RONNIE ELLIS writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at rellis@cnhi.com.

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