Cost of confining felons: Counties want state to pay

Convicted felons in Kansas used to go to state prisons for their crimes. But some now are serving out their sentences in jails across the state, putting the financial burden for their incarceration on counties.

That concerns Sedgwick County Commissioner Karl Peterjohn, who recently pushed for the Kansas Association of Counties to take on the issue in its 2011 legislative platform.

"You're basically turning the jails into subsidiaries of the state prison system," Peterjohn said.

The association is calling for the state to reimburse counties for the cost of housing felons, to track how many are serving time in jail and to make that number available to the public.

In Sedgwick County, that number is about 175, or about 11 percent of the jail's total population. On Monday, there were 1,556 people in Sheriff Robert Hinshaw's custody.

It costs $66.20 a day to house an inmate in the county jail. That means one day housing convicted felons who used to be sentenced to prison costs the county $11,585.

"As the state has downsized the number of beds in their prisons, we're kind of in a situation where we're ending up having to cover for them," Peterjohn said. "It's a challenge."

In addition to being a financial burden, Peterjohn said, "It ties in to jail overcrowding."

The push for money from the state comes while the county is focusing on reducing its jail population so it doesn't have to spend millions to add on or build a new jail.

Historically, Hinshaw said, felons went to state prison and those convicted of misdemeanors went to the county jail.

But now people convicted of crimes such as felony driving while suspended, felony DUIs and some forgeries — as well as other crimes — are ending up in jail and for longer as the state strengthens punishment for crimes such as driving under the influence.

"My main concern is that it doesn't seem to end. The state continues to push this stuff down to us," Hinshaw said. "I think it's time to make a philosophical stand — this far and no further."

Sen. Tim Owens, R-Overland Park, chairman of the state's DUI commission and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he understands the frustration.

"Nobody has enough money to deal with all of the people that we have to have in some kind of correctional situation," Owens said Friday. "If the state says we're not going to pay for the prisons and we're just going to shove it back down to the county level but we're not going to give them any money, what does that say?"

The words "unfunded mandate" come to mind, he said.

The overarching problem, Owens said, is that people want criminals to be punished but don't want to see their taxes go up to pay for doing so.

"Where we are now is that the counties are starting to feel the pain," he said. "I spent 24 years as a city councilman. I'm real aware of unfunded mandates from the state. . . . Is it fair to shift the problem from the state to the locals without some kind of financial assistance? With my old local-government hat on, I don't think it is fair. But both sides have to balance it."

Peterjohn said no one opposed his push to include the issue in the association's legislative platform.

The language reads:

"Historically, felons served their sentences with the Kansas Department of Corrections; however, state laws have been modified in recent years to move convicted felons to county jails. We support state funding to reimburse counties for the entire cost of housing convicted felons. Further, the state should keep accurate records of the number of felons in county jails and make such information available to the public."