Friday, January 02, 2015

EDITORIAL >> Making jails self-sufficient

Jacksonville officials know when to hold them and when to fold them. After a bitter, year-long showdown with Pulaski County officials over the city’s share to fund the county jail, the Jacksonville City Council caved in and agreed to budget $201,000 a year for the right to send local prisoners to Pulaski County.

Jacksonville paid $195,000 last year, but this year’s increase is minuscule when you consider that the county threatened to charge the city $500,000 a year if there was no contract.

If Jacksonville hadn’t signed the agreement, the quorum court would have charged the city a per day fee of $245 per new prisoner for the first day and $44 for each day after that. That would have added up to about $500,000 in 2015.

Bottom line: Jacksonville will pay $1 million over five years.

Jacksonville was the only holdout in a five-city agreement to help defray the cost of operating the county jail. The quorum court has determined the payments that each city in the county needs to come up with for housing city prisoners, but Jacksonville had insisted it was being charged too much.

Jails will remain overcrowded until the state builds a new $100 million prison, which county prosecutors have requested. That may not happen for years as the new governor and legislature are expected to cut costs rather than increase spending.

Meanwhile, Lonoke County is making progress on bringing costs down at the jail. The Lonoke County Quorum Court has agreed to pay the jail $40 a day per inmate the county uses for labor.

“The money doesn’t go to the inmates, but to the jail to cover the cost of housing the inmates,” Sheriff John Staley said. The Lonoke facility was housing 146 prisoners at year’s end.

The county has used inmate labor for years to clear rights of way, pick up trash and fill potholes. But the jail has never been reimbursed. “So this is a good deal for us,” he said.

Staley said inmates are not required to go out and work for the county.

“It’s volunteer, but most don’t want to sit in their cells the entire day, so they volunteer, and many have good skills that we put to use, like carpentry and concrete work.”

He said all the work the inmates do, whether for the county or for the jail itself, is on public property. At the rate of $40 a day, and using about four inmates a day, the jail should pick up between $40,000 and $50,000 next year.

Pulaski County officials could look to their counterparts in Lonoke County and elsewhere in finding ways to get inmates to help pay their own way when they’re behind bars.

Training them for a better job when they’re released would also pay dividends as they become taxpaying citizens and repay their debt to society.