Senate makes Missouri's private jails accountable

Friday, March 13, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

JEFFERSON CITY —With nearly unanimous support, the state Senate passed a bill Thursday that would, for the first time, make private jails in Missouri subject to state oversight. 

The bill would also require jails to notify local police officials when an inmate escapes, a reaction to a September incident in which two prisoners fled a private jail near Kansas City and the sheriff's office was not informed for hours. Missouri's two private jails, located in Bethany and Holden, house out-of-state inmates moved because of overcrowding.  The Holden facility was the site of last year's escape. 

Bill sponsor Sen. David Pearce, R-Warrensburg, says his legislation would ensure that all jails housing convicted felons are held accountable for reporting incidents like the one in Holden.

"Right now, with these jails there is no accountability, no regulation, no oversight," he said. "What this bill tries to do is at least set standards and not have these sort of rogue prisons that are not part of society."

The bill seeks to hold private jails to the same standards as county jails and state prisons.  It also authorizes the state to fine jails that do not report escapes in a "timely" manner, which Pearce said was designed to avoid a repeat of last year's escape.

In September, two prisoners from Kansas City, Kan., escaped from the Holden facility, located in Pearce's district.  They escaped at about 5 a.m., according to news reports, but the Johnson County sheriff's office was not notified until 1 p.m. that day, and local residents were not informed until even later. According to Pearce, it was not a crime for the prisoners to flee, something he said makes no sense.

"It's not a crime to escape from a private jail," he said. "Once the prison told Johnson County about the escape, the sheriff's office said there was nothing they could do because no crime was committed, and Kansas had to re-introduce charges to arrest them. That's crazy and shouldn't happen again."

The lone dissenter in a 30-1 vote Thursday was Sen. Luann Ridgeway, R-Smithville, who said the bill needed more work before it was brought to the Senate floor for a vote.

"We could have made this bill a lot better," she said. "I really am concerned with the authority that it gives police the right to take over a private facility, when the jail would be responsible for any costs incurred by that."

Ridgeway added that she supports regulating private jails in principle, but that she cannot support the unanimous passage of a bill she views as flawed.

"I'm not afraid to be the only one to say no," she said. "A unanimous vote might indicate every single senator thought it was as good as it could be, when that is not the case. There are flaws right now, certainly, but this is not as good as it could be."

Pearce called the legislation "common sense" and said he just wanted to hold jails to standards similar to those of other private companies.

"What we're trying to do is just give (jails) regulations just like any other business," he said. "I certainly don't want to put these jails out of business. I just want to make them accountable because right now, they aren't."


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