By Sarah Hogsed
Register News Writer
This fall, Madison County officials began discussing in earnest plans to expand the county jail by 50 to 100 beds.
This is not a new topic to the fiscal court, however. In an April 2007 fiscal court meeting, Magistrate Larry Combs said building a new jail must be a top priority.
“We’ve dodged the bullet too many times, and I feel it’s eventually going to catch up with us,” Combs said then. “It’s not fair to our jailer to ask him to keep 250 prisoners when we only have 180 or 190 beds.”
With daily inmate numbers running around 260 or more a day, the county has lost thousands in revenue as the state Department of Corrections continues to pull prisoners from the facility every time it goes over 125 percent capacity, Jailer Doug Thomas reported recently.
Not once in the past six months has the Madison County Detention Center been under 125 percent capacity, according to weekly population reports submitted to the Department of Corrections.
On Thursday, with an inmate population of 271, MCDC was the second largest jail in the state that was over capacity. It also was third among the state’s jails for number of prisoners (76) over capacity.
State prisoners and revenue
In decades past, Kentucky felons who were sentenced to more than a year in prison were sent to state-run penitentiaries. However, after Kentucky toughened its criminal sentencing laws in the late 1980s, and again in the late 1990s, the state facilities became overcrowded.
Kentucky’s Department of Corrections found a solution by housing lower-level felons in county jails, which originally were built to house people awaiting prosecution or serving misdemeanor sentences.
Today, about one-third of Kentucky felons are housed in county jails, according to the state Department of Corrections. Only Louisiana, which has 50 percent of its felons in county jails, ranks higher than Kentucky, according to a New York Times report.
Keeping felons in county jails not only relieves overcrowding in state prisons, but it also lowers costs. In 2011, the Department of Corrections reported that the average cost for a prisoner in a state-run facility was $60.14 a day. However, the average cost for a state prisoner at a county jail was just $34.79 a day.
County jails are eager to take in state prisoners to keep their beds full and generate the $31.34 per diem that the state pays for each inmate. Madison County Jailer Doug Thomas estimated at a recent fiscal court meeting that state prisoners bring in $54,000 to $70,000 a month in state funds to the detention center.
County Judge/Executive Kent Clark said in the current fiscal year, about $1 million had to be appropriated from the general fund to run the jail. The facility brings in about $1 million in revenue from housing state inmates and jail fees, but with the reduction in state prisoners, this number is expected to drop, leaving county taxpayers responsible for footing more of the jail’s bills.
Overcrowding and its causes
In 2011, the Kentucky legislature pass House Bill 463, which allowed police to cite offenders for certain, low-level crimes instead of automatically jailing them. It also pushed for more rehabilitation for drug offenders.
The ultimate aim of the bipartisan Public Safety and Offender Accountability Act was to relieve overcrowding in Kentucky jails, reduce incarceration costs and increase public safety.
“It has not worked for us,” Thomas said, adding that when the bill passed, Madison County’s jail was housing about 240 to 250 inmates a day. Now it often has 275 to 280 inmates a day.
Thomas pointed out that while the bill allowed officers to issue citations for certain crimes, arresting and jailing a suspect is still up to an officer’s discretion.
Thomas said several causes contribute to jail overcrowding. Locally, the court system is clogged with cases as dockets and indictments have increased dramatically during the past several years. That is true, even as crime rates in Kentucky have generally stayed the same or even fallen in some jurisdictions, including within Richmond city limits.
The county’s population has grown significantly since the 195-bed jail was built in 1990. The U.S. Census Bureau shows the county added 25,400 people in the past 20 years, an increase of nearly 50 percent from 1990's population of 57,508.
Plans for jail expansion
Currently, about 40 people are on the county’s home incarceration program, which was implemented this year, Thomas said.
“It’s saved the taxpayers some money, but it’s not the solution,” the jailer said.
Earlier this month, the fiscal court voted unanimously to inform the Kentucky Department of Corrections that the county is interested in building a 100-bed facility for Class D felons behind the current jail.
“We sent a message that we’re very interested about building this type of facility,” Clark said.
Once the state approves a permit for the expansion, the county will begin drawing up architectural plans and evaluating costs. The judge/executive said that by using the county’s own concrete and construction crews, costs could be reduced about 60 percent.
Clark said the expansion would roughly cost about $800,000 to $1 million, which would be funded out of the county budget and with bonds.
“I think it could pay for itself in about one and a half years,” Clark said.
Clark noted there are few jails in Kentucky that break even or make money. His goal is for the jail to bring in enough revenue to reduce its yearly general fund appropriation by $100,000 to $200,000.
Calling the proposed 100-bed jail expansion a “10-year fix,” Clark acknowledged that with the county’s population growth, both facilities could reach capacity, but at that point “we could afford to let the state take away some of their prisoners,” he said.
The county simply doesn’t have $12 million to $15 million to build a larger, regional jail, and finding a place in the county where the residents would be willing to have such a facility would be “impossible,” Clark said.
Ultimately, it’s a balancing act to abide by state regulations on jail population and living standards while also trying to generate income for the county’s general fund, he said.
“We’re doing everything we can to reduce the overcrowding,” Clark said. “But we can’t just put these drug dealers and thugs back out on the street.”
Sarah Hogsed can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 624-6694.