In the late 1990s, Boone County law enforcement officials, faced with the rising cost of housing inmates at out-of-county facilities, discussed building a new jail. The problem became acute in 1998, when the county spent more than $650,000 to incarcerate inmates in other jails.
By the end of the decade, the average daily population at the Boone County Jail had stabilized at about 200 inmates. Talk of building a new jail waned, and instead the work-release section of the jail was renovated to accommodate more inmates.
Inmates on the rise
Now, the population at the Boone County Jail, which was constructed in 1991 and has 210 beds, has started to climb again. Last year, the number of inmates requiring incarceration reached a daily average of 223. According to County Auditor June Pitchford, Boone County spent $273,300 to house inmates elsewhere last year — up from $110,400 in 2002. Those costs do not include transportation of the prisoner to and from the out-of-county facility for court appearances.
According to Lt. Keith Hoskins, assistant administrator at Boone County Jail, rising jail populations are a national trend.
“We’re no different from everywhere else,” Hoskins said.
Maj. Warren Brewer, the jail’s administrator, said overcrowding has been the trend since he began working at the facility in 1981. The county has been paying to house inmates elsewhere since 1994, he said, just three years after the current jail was built. Brewer said the reason for the steady increase in inmates has eluded county officials.
“If I could answer that question, I’d be a rich man,” Brewer said. “We have a high population, then we’ll go through a lull and then another high.”
Reality House helping with overflow
Since 2000, Reality House, a private facility for low-risk offenders, has helped with the jail’s overflow. Reality House costs Boone County $25 a day per prisoner and is the first place Brewer looks to when the jail is full. Typically, Reality House can hold 15 to 20 prisoners from the jail, and when that space is taken up, Brewer looks for available jail beds in surrounding counties.
Boone County sends prisoners to facilities in Miller, Cooper, Cole, Callaway, Saline and Chariton counties at a cost of about $30 to $35 a day — down from about $50 a day in the late 1990s when the supply of available beds was lower. Boone County also contracts with Warren County, although at $43 a day, it is a last resort.
Last month, on any given day, Boone County paid out-of-county facilities to house anywhere from a handful to two-dozen inmates.
On average, the vacancy rate at the jail is about 10 percent. According to Hoskins, most standards recommend that county jails maintain an 18 to 20 percent vacancy rate, which makes it easier to move inmates around.
Hoskins said that inmates often have conflicting personalities and that without extra space it can be difficult to separate two people who cannot get along.
“When you’re maxed out on your cells, it’s harder to manage people,” Hoskins said.
Many inmates await trial
Fewer than one in five Boone County inmates are serving a sentence. The majority is in jail awaiting trial. Hoskins estimated 35 to 40 percent of those arrested are unable to post bond and must be held at the jail.
Hoskins said the most common reasons for incarceration in Boone County are minor offenses such as driving offenses and stealing or theft. Many inmates are arrested and jailed for failing to appear in court.
“We spend a lot of resources because people can’t keep an appointment,” Brewer said.
Hoskins said defendants usually receive an initial court date within 10 days of being charged. If a defendant misses one of several court dates, a judge may issue a warrant for the defendant’s arrest. Many arrests for failing to appear occur when an officer is already investigating another crime, leaving an offender to face multiple sets of charges when a bond is set.
Many of those defendants are unable to pay their bonds, Hoskins said.
“I’ve seen failure to appear bonds (set) anywhere between $10 and $10,000,” Hoskins said.
County looking for efficiency
Elkin said the county is just now beginning to look at ways to streamline the system to make it more efficient.
“We’re at the data-gathering stage,” Elkin said. “We do a great job now, but can we be better? Absolutely.”
According to Brewer, the judicial system is “bending over backward” to control the jail’s population while continuing to hold offenders accountable for their crimes. Since 1997, the county has implemented a variety of alternative sentencing programs to help address the overcrowding at the jail. The programs are designed to help relieve the jail population while still attempting to respond to crime.
“You can’t say, ‘OK, prisoners, only five of you can commit a crime and get arrested today,’ ” Elkin said.
The Community Shock Program takes individuals out of the jail system and places them in a 90-day rehabilitation program. Offenders stay at the Reality House, where their movements are monitored. The first 30 days of the program focus on counseling sessions. Offenders are then allowed to work up to 35 hours a week, provided they also attend 10 hours of counseling.
The county’s home detention program allows inmates to serve time in their homes. This program is most often associated with the electronic monitoring devices offenders wear on their ankles. Offenders also regularly meet with corrections officials to ensure they are meeting the terms of their sentence. In January, 45 people were in the home detention program.
The county has also initiated special courts for drug offenders and the mentally ill. Instead of traditional sentencing, offenders must go through a treatment program aimed at preventing repeat offenses. Offenders meet weekly with the court, and relapses may result in jail time. Fewer than five percent of those sentenced in drug and mental health court go on to become repeat offenders, said Boone County Circuit Court Judge Christine Carpenter.
Searching for alternatives
Last year, voters approved Proposition L, a one-eighth-cent sales tax to support county law enforcement, including funding alternate sentencing programs. The tax did not include budgeting for jail expansions.
“The people spoke clearly,” Brewer said. “They wanted alternatives to incarceration with some of these lower-level problems.”
According to a 2001 Boone County report, a new jail will probably be needed by 2008. Studies showed that by 2018 the average Boone County Jail population would be around 334.
Elkin said a new jail would cost at least $7.3 million, not including personnel and operating costs. Elkin said that the county is looking to use every other possible solution, including housing inmates in other county jails, but that eventually a new facility will be needed.
“Ultimately, as we continue to grow,” he said, “we are going to need to expand the jail.”