Counties across Missouri hoped this was the year that the Department of Corrections would make headway on the $20-$30 million they’re owed for housing inmates who eventually go to state prisons.
But legislators allocated only $1.75 million more to address the backlog. Missouri's practice of reimbursing counties in this way is unique in the United States, and local sheriffs and county leaders say it’s time for a better solution.
“I don't know what that is, but at the current rate we're operating, the state will never get ahead,” Cass County Sheriff Jeff Weber said. “We'll never get these costs caught up and we're going to keep plunging down that road. And I don't know what will happen in the future.”
It’s tricky to know the exact number of inmates being housed at any one time, Department of Corrections spokeswoman Karen Pojmann told KCUR 89.3, because counties are only reimbursed for the inmates who are convicted and sentenced to prison.
But the state did provide total amounts of what it says it owes counties, as of 2018. The top three are:
City of St. Louis: $2,554,759.08
Jackson County: $1,889,324.46
Greene County (Springfield): $1,417,874.58
The other counties in the Kansas City area are owed:
The counties themselves contend it’s actually more. In Jackson County, where the jail has about 800 state inmates (not all have been tried or convicted), leaders put the number at $2 million.
“Every one of us taxpayers is hit with the burden of this, to hold prisoners for the state who may not be actually here from Jackson County,” the county legislature’s vice chairman Dan Tarwater said. “It’s an unfunded mandate. We would love for them to be able to pay for the things that they ask us to do.”
An inherited backlog
The Department of Corrections took over the reimbursement process from the Office of Administration a few years ago, and discovered there was a deficit. It assigned a team to review the bills and track payments.
Since then, it’s about nine months behind in those payments, according to Pojmann. Platte County said it received payment in April from a bill that it sent the state in August.
Corrections officials have said they understand the frustrations, but they’re limited by how much money the department receives in the state budget.
“The department receives a $10 million appropriation every quarter and we’re writing $10 million worth of checks in one business day,” Department of Corrections Director Anne Precythe told a House Budget Committee hearing in January. “So we’re sitting on go, ready to write it, and when that’s done, we have another 89 days before we get another $10 million.”
The agency reimburses counties at a rate of $22.58 per inmate per day currently, even though it’s authorized by state law for a rate of $37. Some county officials have said it’s not nearly enough to cover the costs of housing inmates, and the situation could be financially beneficial for the state.
“Even though in our situation the cost is about $65 a day, the statute only allows for them to reimburse us about $20 a day. So, there's two thirds of that cost that we're eating,” Cass County’s Weber said. “They're getting credit for the time they're in the county jail, but they're also getting it at a two to one rate.”
A potential solution
While state legislators did not allocate much in direct funding to address the backlog, they did provide $5 million for a new electronic monitoring program. Counties who join the program would get to move to the front of the line in getting their back payments.
But some sheriffs, like Weber, are balking.
“We're going to take money that we're already giving you for something, that we have to by law and we're going to defer that to the new program and you've got to do all these new processes to get that same money,” he said. “That scares me. We're overworked as it is and I say that across the law enforcement community here in our state.”
Weber believes more solutions need to come soon, because county jails are growing crowded. Cass County will soon expand its jail, thanks to a sales tax that voters extended in 2016.
The reimbursements typically go into a county government’s general fund. And Weber said he’s stopped relying on the inmate reimbursements for budgeting purposes, but that smaller counties may not be so lucky.
“I think that, you know, it's a complex situation and we've been working on it for years and years and it's not something that's going to be solved right away,” Tarwater said. “We are moving forward with the jail. We do need to build that and we need to become more efficient in the housing of the prisoners.”
The state budget is now in the hands of Parson, who can decide to allocate more money to address the backlog in payments through the supplemental budgeting process next year.
But answers may be weeks, if not months away, and the costs to house inmates will continue to mount.
Samuel King is the Missouri government and politics reporter at KCUR 89.3. Follow him on Twitter: @SamuelKingNews.
Samuel covers Missouri government and politics for KCUR. He comes to KCUR from the world of local television news, where he worked for 14 years in markets like Minneapolis, New York City and Montgomery. Samuel has extensive experience covering elections and state government in states across the country. He has won Associated Press awards for spot news coverage and investigative reporting. A native of Queens, New York, Samuel also spent time growing up in Alabama. He is a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Intergrated Marketing Communications at Northwestern University.