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Missouri sheriffs ask for more state funds to house inmates

Monday, January 21, 2013 | 10:19 a.m. CST; updated 2:02 p.m. CST, Monday, January 21, 2013

JOPLIN — Some Missouri sheriffs say counties are paying too much of the cost of housing and providing medical care for prisoners charged with state crimes and they want the state to reduce the funding gap.

The state currently pays counties $19.58 a day for food, housing and some medical care for state inmates until the inmates are moved to Missouri Department of Corrections prisons, The Joplin Globe reported.

"I'd certainly like to see the state do more," Newton County Sheriff Ken Copeland said. "Our costs are closer to $30 a day. That's what we charge cities inside the county if we house their prisoners; the charge for outside the county is $45 (per day)."

At the Jasper County Jail, the cost for basic prisoner housing is about $34 per day, said Capt. Becky Stevens, who supervises jail operations. Last year, state reimbursements for prisoner housing totaled just more than $835,000, while the budget to operate the jail was nearly $2.3 million.

"Housing prisoners is an expensive proposition," said Jasper County Sheriff Randee Kaiser. "When you take into account food, bedding, medical services and the cost of staffing, it's a lot more than $20 per day, so I'd like to see it increased."

State Rep. Galen Higdon, R-St. Joseph, is chairman of the Interim House Committee on Sheriff's Operations, which he said will propose legislation this session to address compensation and other issues for law enforcement agencies. The committee has completed its report, but Higdon wouldn't discuss specific recommendations until all members have approved the draft.

Higdon, who was a Buchanan County sheriff's deputy for 30 years, said he thought the committee would make recommendations by the end of February.

State law allows payments of up to $37.50, and until spending cutbacks several years ago, state payments were authorized for up to $22 per day, said Mick Covington, executive director of the Missouri Sheriffs' Association.

"Whatever the (funding) gap is, it's left to county taxpayers to pay; there's no place else to go," he said.

A Missouri Senate committee on Thursday considered legislation that would divert income tax refunds and lottery winnings from prisoners to help pay off their county jail debts.

But Newton County's Copeland doesn't think it's realistic to ask prisoners to pay more of their own costs.

"It would just be something else that would take time and create paperwork, but wouldn't generate much in payments," he said.

Sheriffs also are asking for higher salaries, particularly in smaller counties. The average pay statewide is $50,000. The lowest wage is $24,102 in northwestern Missouri's Worth County; the highest is $110,000 in Boone County, which includes Columbia.

The Missouri Sheriffs' Association said a salary of $75,000 would be a good starting point because that is what sergeants in the Missouri State Highway Patrol make. Currently, 106 of the 114 sheriffs in the state make less than that. They also suggest linking sheriff salaries to full-time prosecutors and trial judges.


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