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Sheriffs want more money for housing state prisoners

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By DARRELL SMITH - dsmith@newsexaminer.com

Local sheriffs hope to get more money for keeping state prisoners in county jails.

The Indiana Sheriffs’ Association plans to ask the Indiana General Assembly to raise the reimbursement by $20 for Level 6 felons housed in local jails. The state has reimbursed counties $35 a day for housing state prisoners for 20 years. The proposal would take that to $55 a day.

When the General Assembly changed the criminal code in 2014 to require counties to house persons convicted of a Level 6 felony rather than sending them to a state facility, county jails suddenly had an overcrowding issue. That came at a time when drug usage and arrests also were rising.

The Fayette County jail on Tuesday had 15 inmates with Level 6 charges, Sheriff Joey Laughlin said. That will vary from 15-25. The average stay is three months to a year.

“Most of the other sheriffs are in the same situation we’re in, they’re at capacity,” he said. “If we did not have the Level 6 inmates, we’d be at 132 today, which would be over capacity. They are doing everything they can at the prosecutor’s office and the judges to try to offset it.

“I’m in favor of raising the rate because the state pushed that burden off on us. To be able to be compensated at a higher rate that would come back into this place would be wonderful.”

Franklin County Sheriff Ken Murphy said on average there are 20-25 Level 6 felons in the Franklin County Security Center in Brookville. He said the jail has seven inmates above the rated capacity and four are sleeping on the floor.

Fayette County has billed the state Department of Correction $171,850 for services for Level 6 inmates from January through July.

Laughlin did not have the cost per day for each inmate available but said the cost of serving a meal has been reduced to $1.09 per meal, down from about $2.30, and it’s the same food. The county has a contract with Quality Care for medical services to try to keep those expenses lower, but the $35 rate is too low.

Raising the fee would bring in nearly $110,000, based on 15 inmates a day for the year.

“The jail officers are grossly underpaid in comparison to our surrounding counties, by $6,000 to $10,000,” Laughlin said. “The council has taken steps and continues to take steps to increase wages, but an extra $100,000, in my idea, would be to pump back into salaries to keep good quality officers.”

He would also be in favor of tying the reimbursement rate to the cost of living so that it would not be another 20 years before counties saw an increase.

“This has been coming on for four or five years with the constant shift to the counties away from the state,” Murphy said. “I’ve got a three-story jail with 67 inmates today and have two jailers on duty.”

He said a jailer received serious injuries after an altercation with an inmate about a year ago and could not work for eight months. He ended Narcotics Anonymous, church services and other visits from the outside because he could not provide security for people coming into the jail.

The problem is that county officials and the public do not understand the liability a jail presents to a county, particularly with funding available for only two officers on duty, he said. 

He said the $35 a day barely covers out-of-pocket expenses but the jail is old and in need of repairs. Meals cost about $1.70. Many counties and cities in the state have a per diem reimbursement for meals and incendentals pay of about $50.

If there is an increase in reimbursement from the state, he hopes the legislature would stipulate the money be used for additional services and personnel.

One of the most prevalent Level 6 felony arrest charges is possession of a syringe.

“From an overcrowding standpoint, when I see it, it gives me pause,” Laughlin said. “But I think, ‘Is this the time that we intervene in their lives to prevent them from overdosing and they come in here and they get straightened out?”

“Having worked the drug detail, I’m not a fan of giving up,” he said. “I’m not ready to wave the white flag, but at some point, we will need to raise the jail capacity. At the end of the day our goal should be to clean up the streets and get them to where they can be productive members of society.”