Don't rush to offload the jail

The problems at the Fayette County Detention Center have been long in the making and neither the Urban County Council nor Mayor Jim Gray should be in a rush to solve them by handing over the troubled lock-up to Sheriff Kathy Witt.

Witt has been offering to take on the jail for months, and again made her case to the public-safety task force of the council earlier this week.

Good for her. Witt's been an energetic force in the sheriff's office, offering new services, including recently agreeing to take up escorting funeral processions when Lexington police announced they would end that practice for budgetary reasons.

However, this needs a careful thinking through that shouldn't be rushed by either enthusiasm for Witt or eagerness to offload responsibility for the troublesome jail.

In the first place, it's not at all clear that it can just be handed over. The city owns the jail facility and would remain legally liable for lawsuits related to the property.

Workers at the jail are covered under the city's corrections officers' collective bargaining contracts, an obligation the city can't walk away from by transferring the jail to the sheriff.

Witt touted cost savings, noting that her office pays $10,000 annually in insurance premiums while the city, which is self-insured, recently paid a $500,000 settlement on a jail-related claim.

This brings up a couple of points. The most obvious is that the sheriff's insurance premiums would probably rise if her office was responsible for all the prisoners and employees at the jail; and it certainly seems likely that the $10,000 premium would not surive long after an insurer paid out a half-million dollars.

The insurance issue also illuminates a larger point that seems to lie beneath these discussions. The insurance and settlement costs are a symptom of the problems at the jail, not the problem. Same goes for a host of staffing problems (among them low morale, mandatory overtime, high turnover) and allegations of a variety of misdeeds by staff that have led to lawsuits by both inmates and employees. All of these point to fundamental management problems.

Which brings up another area of concern about the sheriff's role. The process playing out now, with public meetings about the jail, is happening because the director of the detention center is a city employee who answers to the mayor and the council. The sheriff is elected and so would not have the same kind of reporting relationship with the city.

This is a key reason the trend generally has been away from elected jailers to professionals who work under the direction of elected officials and can be removed without waiting for an election.

It may well be that good governance will mean Witt's office has a larger role in the jail's future. But city officials can't outsource, or hurry, the hard work of solving the fundamental problems at the jail.