Kentucky's jails are in crisis. America's jails are in crisis.
Despite the fiscal and operational crises jails face, however, their mission remains the same: to protect the public and jail safety while providing a reasonable degree of inmate care and programs intended to reduce the likelihood of re-incarceration.
At one time, TV's Mayberry Sheriff Andy Taylor might have explained it to deputy Barney in simple terms. "Barney, your job is to keep Otis in jail until he gets out. While he is here make sure he doesn't get hurt or hurt anybody else. If he gets sick, call the doctor. Aunt Bee will feed Otis when he is hungry and talk to him about his drinking problem."
The corrections mission hasn't changed, but the number of folks in jail and their problems sure have.
In its 2009 study, "The Leaky Bucket," the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce reported that Kentucky's corrections budget is increasing faster than total General Fund spending. Spending on corrections increased 44 per cent from the 2000-2002 budget to 2008-2010 budget, compared to a 33 percent increase in total state spending.
Prosecutorial policies enacted in the 1990s, including mandatory sentencing, overburdened state prisons. As a result, the commonwealth started housing state prisoners in local jails to ease overcrowding. The practice seemed reasonable at first, but now it consumes jail beds and resources at an unsustainable rate.
A system in crisis addresses the problem by trying to purge prisoners that it believes present little threat to public safety. So Kentucky and other states are releasing their low-risk prisoners back into the community. They are also returning many felons held in local jails back into state prisons that have empty beds. This transfer of felons back to the state prison system, however, leaves local jails without revenues they were promised.
County jails that were built or expanded with state revenue sharing, specifically to house state prisoners, now have huge vacancies. Adding to the financial pressure on local jails is the fact that general fund dollars required to run the facilities and reduce bond construction debt have also declined.
Despite those problems, county jails have yet to fully realize the crowning blow. Those state low-risk prisoners that are released back into our communities may be less dangerous, but they have a much higher rate of re-offending because of their propensity to engage in property and drug crimes. Most will return to jail as county inmates, further draining local general-fund resources.
We must reinvent the way jails do business.
First and foremost, jails need to know who they are incarcerating. A jail needs to know who is dangerous and who is not, who needs to be kept safely in jail and who can be served less expensively in a different facility or in a different way.
Classification is the process that separates violent offenders from non-violent offenders. Nonviolent drug and property offenders should be required to work while incarcerated and participate in substance abuse programs as a condition of confinement. Idle time in jails should be nonexistent. Property offenders should be engaged in educational and vocational programs during their incarceration.
In order for jails to implement these changes they must embrace today's technologies. Jails must be able to work across county lines, communicating daily with other jailers to share and solve common problems, properly train staff and reduce health care costs through a network of telemedicine assessments that minimize costly hospital transports and care.
Jails large enough to support 24/7/365 on-site health care staff could connect electronically to help smaller jails for after-hour telemedicine and classification assessments when required.
With the exception of a few large 1,000-bed facilities, jails can no longer be independent correctional operators. Jails can and should share technologies and information to better manage the scarce resources of the fiscal courts.
Moving images instead of inmates is the first step in developing an electronic corrections infrastructure that will establish the broadband boundaries of tomorrow's jails.