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Missouri Requires County Jails to House State Prisoners, Then Doesn’t Pay for Them

by David M. Reutter

The state government in Missouri owes counties more than $33 million for housing and transporting state prisoners during fiscal year 2019. Although state law places no cap on the number of prisoners sent to county jails, the legislature has also not made allowance in the state budget to pay the outstanding costs.

“We’re a holding facility for the Missouri Department of Corrections (MDOC),” said Lewis County Sheriff David Parrish, “and we’ve grown tired of these unfunded things that come from the state legislature. We just can’t afford to do it anymore.”

Some of the problems arise from discrepancies over what it costs to keep a state prisoner in a county jail. The actual average cost is $71.14 per day, but state law caps reimbursements to the counties at $37.50 – and the state’s actual reimbursement rate is just $22.81.

“It costs local taxpayers $45 a day minimum to house these people here,” said Greene County Sheriff Jim Arnott, who is owed about $3 million. “So we’re already doing it [at $22.81 per day] for half price, and now they won’t even pay their bill on half price.”

As of September 30, 2019, Greene County had exceeded its jail capacity. It now must pay other counties to house 156 detainees, due in part from having to hold state prisoners.

The MDOC approves reimbursements quarterly, with payments linked to receipt of a county’s request, not the date of a prisoner’s incarceration. But even with that delay in billing, MDOC spokeswoman Karen Pojmann said the agency typically runs out of reimbursement funds within the first three days each quarter. Since 2016, the MDOC has used a “dedicated team” to audit reimbursement requests, she said.

The state prison system’s entire budget for 2019 was just $43.3 million. The $33 million it owes to counties falls into three approved categories of reimbursement payments, beyond housing state prisoners in local jails:

• Bill of costs reimbursements cover expenses resulting from prosecuting certain crimes;

• Extradition reimbursements repay costs associated with bringing a fugitive to Missouri to face criminal charges; and

• Transportation reimbursements extend to the expense of delivering convicted offenders to state prison.

Greene County cited the lack of state funds as part of the reason it implemented a half-cent sales tax increase in 2017 to fund jail expansion. The financial burden is hampering other sheriffs’ operations, too.

“I had in the budget to fund two patrol cars, and I can see we’re not going to be able to do that,” said Parrish. “I have a deputy driving a patrol truck with over 200,000 miles on it. We need to replace a generator here at the jail. We need to replace a couple of heating and air units. You know, those things are all impacted.”

Though Missouri cut its state prison population by 3.3 percent between 2017 and 2018, it did so by closing prisons and forcing county jails to hold state prisoners until one of the remaining beds in the prison system opened up.

“Those people are still going through the system. They’re just getting stuck in county jails longer,” Sheriff Arnott observed.

The state has provided funding for an optional pretrial electronic monitoring and release program to help reduce jail costs. But Arnott pointed out that his jail houses repeat offenders and those with serious charges, such as murder and rape, who are unsuitable for release.

Governor Mike Parson has allocated $1.7 million of general revenue funds to help chip away at the state’s outstanding $33 million bill, but at the end of the year counties can only hope the legislature will allocate enough money to cover the remainder and fund the next year.

“It is frustrating when the state is unable or unwilling to give funds,” said Boone County Auditor June Pitchford.

Of course, when ordinary people – unlike state governments – fail to pay what they owe, they are subject to civil and sometimes criminal liability. 



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