The Ledger-Independent, Maysville
A recent study and subsequent report released last week by Kentucky Auditor Crit Luallen only served to confirm what county officials have been saying all along that housing prisoners and paying for jails puts an unbearable burden on Kentucky counties and taxpayers.
Now we have to discover how to take that information and use it to change a system that is definitely out of whack.
In fiscal year 2005, according to the report, Kentuckys 120 counties paid 50 percent of the $244 million it took to operate county jails. State and federal funds accounted for the other 50 percent. But those too, we must remember, are taxpayer dollars.
... While the state is lamenting the financial drain of county jails, we are reminded of a time when the Mason County Detention Center wasnt a financial burden. The facility was self-supporting, in part because of the juvenile offenders it housed for the state. Finally, after a reminder from then-Gov. Paul Patton that jails shouldnt be turning a profit, the state built its own juvenile facilities, removed that source of revenue from the counties and left county jails to fend for themselves. Today, we are seeing, or more aptly suffering from that loss of revenue.
In Mason County, $1.8 million is spent each year to keep the jail operating. Thats a nice chunk of change and equals almost two-thirds of the countys general fund. Without that expense or with considerably less expense, think of the number of roads that could be paved and the projects that could be completed.
Luallens findings revealed a wide range of costs per prisoner across the state for everything from health care to meals. She reasons that state government, by leveling out those costs, can do a better job of operating the jails.
A shift from county- to state-run jails isnt likely to happen soon, considering the commonwealths current financial status. But Luallen is recommending that steps be taken immediately to smooth the path for an eventual merger of county jails with the Department of Corrections. In the eyes of county judge-execs, commissioners and magistrates who are seeing budgets swallowed almost whole by jail costs, the transition cant begin soon enough.
Though we agree that there has to be a better way to run a jail, a way that will take a smaller bite out of county budgets, we urge all parties involved to use caution, to consider all options carefully before jumping on the lets make changes bandwagon. Change for the sake of change seldom produces the desired results and often produces more problems, not fewer. And if there is one thing not needed, its more problems for county budgets and county jails.