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The Buck Stops Where?

When Georgia prisoner Stanley Reed filed a federal habeas petition in January 1997 he probably didn't expect the response he received: The warden refused to answer the petition, raising the possibility that Reed might be released by default. The reason? Reed, although a state prisoner, was doing time at a county facility. Georgia pays county facilities $12.50 per prisoner per diem, and officials in Colquitt County, where Reed was incarcerated, balked at covering the additional cost of litigating habeas petitions.

The Colquitt case highlights a power struggle between state and county officials over the expense of housing state prisoners--local governments complain they're getting the short end of the correctional stick and are saddled with costs that exceed the reimbursement they receive. And as states face overcrowded corrections systems due to harsh sentencing laws, and house an increasing overflow of prisoners in local facilities, such disputes are likely to escalate.

For example, in February 1998 lawyers representing county governments in Alabama asked a judge to find the state in contempt of a court order requiring prisoners in local jails to be transferred to state prisons within 30 days of sentencing. The state argued that it couldn't comply with the order because it didn't have enough prison bed space; instead, Alabama pays county jails just $1.75 per prisoner per day to house convicted felons.

County officials are also upset about the encroachment of prison privatization. Franklin Sutton, chairman of the Colquitt Co. Board of Commissioners, notes that the county receives only one-quarter of the per diem rate the state pays private corrections companies. "I feel offended that they expect us to do the same thing for less money," he gripes.

In response, Georgia officials say the counties aren't forced to accept state prisoners and note that local facilities use the prisoners as cheap labor. Approximately 3,700 Georgia convicts are incarcerated in county jails, where they are put to work in recycling, road maintenance and construction projects. According to Christopher Hamilton, director of legal services for the Georgia DOC, the counties are getting a good deal even though they have to spend local tax dollars to subsidize the payments they receive from the state. And, he says, part of the overhead is the cost of defending against prisoners' habeas petitions.

Most counties accept this argument, but Colquitt isn't backing down: In November 1997 the county commissioners adopted a resolution vowing not to respond to "frivolous" legal actions such as Reed's habeas petition. The unanswered petition, however, won't amount to a get-out-of-jail-free card. The magistrate judge over the case, Richard L. Hodge, intends to let the county off the hook by adding Georgia's corrections commissioner as a respondent, which would allow the state attorney general's office to step in. "I don't know that there is authority or precedent for it, but something needs to be done or this case will be on the corner of my desk six months from now," remarked Hodge, candidly.

Meanwhile, at the request of another cost-conscious county, a bill was introduced in the Georgia legislature that would require the state to defend against habeas petitions brought by state prisoners housed in local facilities.

Wall Street Journal

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