Everyone agrees county jails are a major and growing problem, depleting county budgets and straining to house the exploding number of inmates.

“We need help now,” Boyd County Judge-Executive William “Bud” Stevens said, desperation in his voice. “There are a lot of counties that will be bankrupt before long if something isn’t done.”

Legislators want to help, although they’ve helped create the problem by adding more and more crimes and requiring stiffer and stiffer penalties for those newly created felony crimes.

“We have to do something because the counties are bleeding to death,” said Rep. Kathy Stein, D-Lexington, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee.

Her counterpart in the Senate, Bob Stivers, R-Manchester, thinks the 2008 General Assem-bly should focus on two major issues — pensions and jails. House Speaker Jody Richards, D-Bowling Green, and Senate Majority Leader Dan Kelly, R-Springfield, who have both sponsored legislation in previous sessions to help the situation, both agree lawmakers will address the issue in this session.

But how – and how much?

Newly elected Gov. Steve Beshear said counties need help, but the budget is tight and he’s not sure what the state can do.

“We’ve got to come up with solutions to help counties out. I don’t know what they are yet,” Beshear said. “Obviously, our budgetary situation will have an impact upon what the solutions can be.”

“It’s a huge problem and it’s very complex,” said John Rees, commissioner of the state’s Department of Corrections who has spent 40 years in corrections, both in the public and private sectors and who is retiring Jan. 31.

“But the jail problem is not just a state problem,” Rees contends.

Rees points to the wide disparity between judicial circuits in the time it takes for those charged to be tried — and if found guilty, sentenced — the point at which the state begins picking up the cost.

Rees, Stein, Vince Lang, the executive director of the Kentucky Judge-Executives Association, even Kelly and Stivers, agree with University of Kentucky law professor Robert Lawson that the root problem is sending too many people to prison. And they all agree drug crimes are an underlying cause.

“We’re putting too many people in jail,” said Stein, who has called for revisions in the penal code. “We’re putting people in jail who need to be in treatment for addiction. We’ll save a lot of money if we treat them instead of jailing them.”

That’s why Kelly wants to create a pre-trial drug treatment program and facilities to house them. Stivers supports Kelly’s approach, and said some control over medical expenses must be developed. He agrees with Rees that the courts have to move cases more quickly and both think some judges require unfairly high bail for those awaiting trial.

But Stivers said addressing one aspect of the complex web of law enforcement, courts and jails, without looking at the whole system is futile.

“Until you make some systemic change up and down the line, we’re just delaying the reality of dealing with the real problem,” said Stivers.

But it won’t be easy. The public demands lawmakers do something about crime; they just don’t want to pay for it.

“Surely, surely you don’t want us to get soft on crime,” said Richards. “I guarantee you the people don’t want us to do that.”

Jailers strongly object to state Auditor Crit Luallen’s and Lang’s calls for the state to gradually take over the jails. Rees and Marshall Long, executive director and lobbyist for the Jailers’ Association, say that will cost taxpayers far more money because of higher pension costs for DOC employees, all of whom receive hazardous duty retirement benefits — costing up to 40 percent of their salaries, according to Rees.

And jailers don’t want to lose control — or their jobs. Lang’s group, the judge-executives association, dropped from its 2008 legislative agenda the idea of a state takeover by 2014 so they could get jailers’ support for the remaining proposals.

They are asking lawmakers for about $22 million more in each of the next two years. Part of it would incrementally double the $14 million bed allotment the state pays jails to pay for housing county prisoners. Others would increase the medical allotment to county jails; tie the state per diem payment to house state prisoners to the Consumer Price Index; and gradually pick up the costs for credit for time served. (Convicted felons are often given credit against total sentence for the time they’ve served in jail prior to sentencing. But the state does not pay counties for that time.)

Rees said the best option is a series of 40 to 50 regional jails housing both state and county prisoners while closing about 20 existing jails. He and Stivers say the state should develop a Certificate of Need process for any new jails and develop standardized, “cookie-cutter” designs for jails to eliminate costly architectural fees. Predictably, architects oppose the idea.

Rees suggests any new jails must be of a minimum size, somewhere between 300 and 500 beds and he thinks lawmakers should consider incentive payments for better managed jails.

Lang and the judge-executives eventually want a state takeover; jailers vary between support for regional jails and maintaining the current system; and the public demands lawmakers get tough on crime without spending any more money on jails.

Meanwhile, counties devote more of their budgets to jails and less to quality of life services.

Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. He can be reached by e-mail at rellis@cnhi.com.

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