Sedgwick County Commissioner Gwen Welshimer made a pointed statement — and lone stand — Wednesday when she refused to vote to spend $2 million more to house jail inmates outside the county and cover inmates' health care the rest of the year.
Her "no" vote was the latest sign that Welshimer doesn't believe the Sheriff's Office is doing enough to curb the jail's population, which continues to climb.
Sheriff Robert Hinshaw said he must accept all inmates sent to the jail as a result of a criminal case.
The four other commissioners voted to transfer the money, saying the county has an obligation to house inmates sentenced to jail and provide for their medical care.
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One commissioner seemed dumbfounded by Welshimer's reluctance to transfer the money out of the sheriff's contingency fund.
Commissioner Tim Norton told Hinshaw that the board had a statutory, constitutional and moral obligation to provide money for the housing and medical care of inmates.
"How much of that contingency has been spent on new vehicles, uniforms, niceties for the Sheriff's Office?" commissioner Tim Norton asked county budget director David Miller.
None, Miller answered.
"So that money is going toward what we are obligated to do," Norton responded.
Then he asked about inmate medical care.
"This is just a 'nice' thing we're doing for people, right?" Norton asked.
Hinshaw answered that the jail is legally obligated to treat inmates who are sick. The jail doesn't provide plastic surgery, he said, but it must treat inmates' illnesses.
Welshimer stood her ground.
"As long as we allocate more money, it's going to be spent," she said. "Until we can work together, I won't vote to appropriate the money, not at this time."
Welshimer has repeatedly criticized Hinshaw and his staff for not working with Justice Concepts Inc., a consultant hired to find ways to reduce the jail's population by 25 percent.
Justice Concepts' 10-month contract with the county expired June 4. During the time of the contract, the jail's population increased. Four months after its contract expired, Justice Concepts still has not presented recommendations to the county. The county has declined to pay Justice Concepts part of its fee until it can document its work.
Hinshaw said after the meeting that he didn't understand Welshimer's attitude toward the Sheriff's Office.
"Commissioner Welshimer took the opportunity to again make a statement that there was little cooperation going on and she kept referring to the department and I interpret that to mean the Sheriff's Office and that I wasn't doing anything about it," he said. "She has been told by other people that this is how the system operates. The sheriff manages inmates. The sheriff has no control over who gets booked into jail or how long they stay. But she continues to put out this message that it's our fault. The commission as a whole has shown a grasp of the complexity of the issues and the reality of the situation."
During the meeting, Commissioner Dave Unruh noted that the decision before the board was "whether or not we're going to transfer money to deal with a situation that exists. What's before us right now is not whether our alternative programs are working."
Board members Karl Peterjohn and Kelly Parks noted that the Sheriff's Office in part is dealing with problems beyond its control as state laws send more people to jail instead of prison.
Inmates out of county
Welshimer later said that the Sheriff's Office doesn't have an adequate recordkeeping system to determine what alternative programs inmates might be eligible for. Without those records, she said, it's impossible to know who might qualify for programs such as pre-trial services or work release.
"That again to my mind is misinformation," Hinshaw said in response. "We know who's in jail. We have good records."
In addition, he said, the judicial system — not the Sheriff's Office — determines which programs an inmate might be eligible for. For example, a judge determines if an inmate can serve part of his sentence on work release, Hinshaw said.
If the other commissioners had sided with Welshimer, Hinshaw said, more than 400 inmates would have had to be returned to the county's jail.
"None of these counties are going to house those inmates for free," Hinshaw said.
The number of inmates housed outside of the county increased during the last months of 2008. During budget talks for this year, the county based its financial projections on an average daily population of 247 inmates housed out of county.
The average daily population for inmates housed out of the county for the first eight months of this year was 335 with August at 405.
"The pace of the inmate population has far outstripped all of our predictions," Hinshaw said at the meeting. "Part of that is people are staying longer in jail. We're trying to figure out why that is."