The Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting recently told the story of Kentucky’s 41 counties without jails that continue to spend money on elected jailers. The total cost of these no-jail jailers and their deputies — often family members — amounts to over $2 million a year, the center calculated.
That’s shameful, wasteful and, frankly, ridiculous.
It is also easily solved.
The 1891 Kentucky Constitution that provided for elected county jailers in each of our 120 counties also allows the General Assembly “to at any time, consolidate the offices of Jailer and Sheriff in any county or counties, as it shall deem most expedient,” and consolidate the jailer’s duties in the sheriff’s office. Fayette and Jefferson counties have shed their jailers.
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The county fiscal courts, which control the budgets, could also simply stop funding the no-jail jailers. As the constitution suggests, county sheriffs could pick up the work these jailers perform
— transporting prisoners, serving as bailiffs in courts — at less cost.
But the no-jail jailers are only the low-hanging fruit in the dysfunction revealed in a 2006 report by then-Auditor Crit Luallen.
The exhaustive, two-volume report on county jails in Kentucky included an overriding recommendation to begin the process of merging the county jails — which house thousands of state prisoners
— into a unified state corrections system.
But, recognizing that was at best a long-term project, the audit made a series of recommendations to achieve more consistency and professionalism in management of the jails.
While there have been some changes for the better since 2006 — legislation to increase drug treatment in county jails and to review plans for new facilities to avoid overbuilding as well as implementation of the Affordable Care Act that has relieved counties of some of the medical costs for prisoners
— the General Assembly has shown no interest in taking on the big picture challenges where jails are concerned.
It’s time for legislative leaders to investigate the serious public safety problems that arise from this fragmented, outdated system and use the power the constitution gives them to enact solutions. Here are some disturbing facts:
› Jailers have control over operating the jails but county fiscal courts, which have no power over the elected jailers, are responsible for the bills.
› There are no professional qualifications for jailers: A jailer must be at least 24, have lived in Kentucky two years and one year in the county. Kentucky law requires the Department of Corrections to provide 40 hours of training annually for jailers and 16 hours for their staff members.
› Even though the state pays over $100 million annually to house prisoners in county jails, the Kentucky General Assembly doesn’t regularly review the status and performance of the jails or jailers.
Corrections monitors and inspects jails, investigates complaints (564 at local detention facilities in 2013) and occasionally shuts down a jail. But a quick search of recent news stories revealed a laundry list of unsettling problems.
Jailers or their deputies sold public property for their own benefit, brought contraband into jails, were charged with sexually harassing their employees and raping an inmate, and with allowing prisoners to escape.
Some jailers are professionals who do their jobs well. But, with only one week of required training a year, there’s no guarantee that will always, or even often, be the case.