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Jail or prison? Counties target law on housing short-time inmates

An all-out blitz by county lobbying organizations is under way to repeal a 2011 law requiring anyone sentenced to prison for a year or less to serve the time in county jail.

Although each group focuses on its own area of interest within county government, they are all working to abolish provisions of SB1621 pertaining to the prisoner shift.

The County Supervisors Association of Arizona is worried about the bottom line for their respective counties, which have had to hand over an estimated $288 million to the state in the form of contributions and cost shifts since 2008. Taking control of thousands of convicted felons will be another heavy budget burden for the 15 counties, they argue.

The state’s sheriffs, except for Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, want to see the repeal because they will have to contend with the practical problems that come with the influx of new prisoners, which is scheduled to begin on July 1.

The Arizona Prosecuting Attorneys Advisory Council, APAAC, will discuss the issue Nov. 17 and decide whether to take a position, but so far the group sees the prisoner shift as potentially complicating plea negotiations when someone commits a serious crime.

Kim MacEachern, APAAC staff attorney, questioned the wisdom of placing felons with the typical population of county inmates, people who are serving time for misdemeanors.

County officials said the law, SB1621, wasn’t given its due diligence by the inexperienced Legislature that included 33 freshmen, and its passage was driven by an intense focus on balancing the budget.

Craig Sullivan, executive director of the County Supervisors Association of Arizona, said his organization has been trying to educate lawmakers on the complexities of the criminal justice system and how they believe the law will have an impact on the operations of jails.

“We’re getting a good sense from members they understand this is a problem and we’re hopeful as we move closer to the session we’ll be able to get members to a point where they see the wisdom in repealing this measure as it’s currently constructed,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan said the sheriffs and county supervisors are working on a coordinated lobbying effort and expect the prosecutors and the Arizona Association of Counties to jump aboard.

The counties have paid dearly for the state’s budget problems over the years, Sullivan said.

For example, five counties — Maricopa, Mohave, Pima, Pinal and Yavapai — have been forced to give millions of dollars to the state, and the state shifted Highway User Revenue Funds to pay for state agencies.  The estimated hit to county budgets in fiscal year 2012 was $94 million.

“Many of these impacts will continue, and requiring counties to pay for the state’s prisoners elevates the magnitude of the impact substantially, though we are still working to assess how much,” Sullivan said.

Rep. John Kavanagh, a Fountain Hills Republican and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said he doesn’t see a need for the contributions from the five counties anymore, but he believes it is good sound policy to house people who have sentences of a year or less in county jails near their families.

That had been the policy for years in the state, but the Legislature in recent years had decided to start incarcerating people in prisons for certain crimes that would normally require time in jail.

“In these difficult fiscal times we can’t afford to have those non-conventional policies,” Kavanagh said.

Arizona was facing a shortfall of roughly $550 million at the beginning of the 2011 session and an estimated $1 billion shortfall for fiscal year 2011, but the Legislature managed to pass a balanced budget that leaders touted was done without the usual accounting gimmicks used in previous years.

The Joint Legislative Budget Committee estimated a $55 million savings for the state.

Navajo County Sheriff Kelly Clark, a Democrat, disputed the Legislature’s claim of a gimmick-free budget.

“When you transfer the state inmates, that’s a gimmick,” Clark said.

Clark said he and other sheriffs tried to make their case in the last session.

“This was truly misguided. There were 30 or 33 new legislators,” Clark said. “I think it was just new legislators who didn’t understand county government, but as they get more experienced, hopefully they’ll realize some of these were bad policy.”

The law gives county sheriffs the option of paying the state $55.59 a day for each inmate the state keeps, but Clark said most sheriffs he’s spoken with are planning on accepting the prisoners because it would be more expensive not to.

Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu said estimates are that the new inmates will cost his county about $3 million to $3.5 million a year.

“With an aging population, I feel this is a conservative estimate due to the rise in health care expenses and mental health prescriptions,” Babeu said in an email.

Clark said one of the problems he foresees is resentment that will be bred toward the state prisoners because they get rights to have coffee makers and television sets in their cells and jail inmates don’t.

There is also the question of determining time off for good behavior and whether it will be done under state policy or the sheriffs’ policy.

State prisoners are also a different breed of convict than jail inmates.

MacEachern said that a 2009 study commissioned by APAAC found that out of 2,105 state prisoners serving a year or less at the time, 758 of them had a history of felony violence.

“If you’ve got really bad guys, you don’t want to mix them in there with people who are in there for disorderly conduct,” MacEachern said.

Kavanagh said jails have plenty of experience in dealing with hardened criminals.

“These jails already have murderers and rapists in their facilities who are awaiting trial or sentencing, so it’s not like having violent people in jails is foreign to them that they aren’t capable of handling,” Kavanagh said.

And then there is the idea that treating felony crimes as misdemeanor punishments suggests from a policy standpoint that the felonies aren’t as serious, MacEachern said.

According to Department of Corrections statistics, as of Sept. 30 there were 1,624 prisoners who were serving a year or less, but the numbers aren’t broken down to how many have violent pasts or were troublemakers in previous stints behind bars. Their crimes range widely from assault to domestic violence, sex and weapons offenses.

Most of those, 1,079, are from Maricopa County, but while the rural counties won’t be burdened with as many state prisoners, they might end up having to give up revenue coming from contracts to jail federal prisoners to make room for them, Clark said.

Lee Ann Bohn, deputy budget director for Maricopa County, said early estimates are that the prisoner shift will cost the county $23 million a year.

The increased population is also expected to put the Maricopa County Jail system over capacity by next fall, just a few months after the law takes effect, Bohn said.

Bohn said the jail population had gone down considerably in recent years, but is on an upswing.

Arpaio said it doesn’t matter and he is recruiting for 170 more detention officers to handle the increase of prisoners.

“I want them,” he said. “I can take 1,500 right now. I’ll put up more tents.”

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