Sensible step toward jail reform

About this time last year the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting offered reform-minded legislators some low-hanging fruit: The $2 million spent on elected jailers in the 41 Kentucky counties that have no jails.

KyCIR’s reporting found that the primary job of many of these no-jail jailers is transporting prisoners to other counties where there are jails. Many get the use of public vehicles, hire family members and do very little for annual salaries ranging from about $20,000 up to $70,000.

Bills were filed to reform this absurd situation but, in the end, none became law.

Denny Carroll, a freshman Republican senator from Paducah, is trying again this session with a proposal that should become law.

Carroll’s bill provides that jailers report to county fiscal courts every quarter on what they’ve been doing, including the names of prisoners transported, when and where they were taken and the mileage driven.

One of the many oddities about the job of jailer is that, even though the county must pay the bills for them, fiscal courts typically exercise very little control over them. This bill if it became law would at least require the fiscal courts to pay some attention to the jailer and consider the value of the services he or she is providing the county.

This is a very limited, common-sense proposal that, as Carroll told KyCIR, “shouldn’t be very controversial at all.”

And it should be only the beginning in a legislative effort to reform the archaic system.

The only requirement to run for jailer is to be 24 and have lived in Kentucky for at least two years, in the county for at least one. So, in counties across Kentucky jails are overseen by elected jailers with no qualifications. Some jailers are qualified, conscientious public servants but too many are not. Still, Kentucky law requires the Department of Corrections — which pays about $100 million annually to jails that house state prisoners — to provide only 40 hours of training annually for jailers and 16 for their deputies. Despite this huge outlay of state resources to the jails, the General Assembly has no process for regularly reviewing the performance of the jails.

The outcome of this lackadaisical training and oversight has been a series of horrific scandals involving fatalities and abuse in county jails, and lawsuits resulting in millions in legal and settlement costs.

The General Assembly should pass this bill and get on with the hard work of enacting true reform in Kentucky’s system of county jails.