Pay to lock up felons

It’s an old gripe but a good one, especially in fiscally difficult times: When the Legislature passes a bill, it should cover the costs associated with that bill. It should not foist the resulting financial responsibility — and, if necessary, tax increases — onto local governments and look the other way.

Such a problem has arisen in Kansas over convicted felons, who once served their terms in state prisons while county jails locked up people convicted of misdemeanors. Increasingly, counties are expected to jail people convicted of crimes such as felony driving while suspended, felony DUI and some forgeries.

To his credit, Sedgwick County Commission Chairman Karl Peterjohn persuaded the Kansas Association of Counties to include the issue in its 2011 legislative agenda, which seeks “state funding to reimburse counties for the entire cost of housing convicted felons” and calls on the state to count and make public the number of felons in county jails (shouldn’t it already do so?).

County residents should cheer Peterjohn on, because his crusade against the Kansas Department of Corrections’ treatment of county jails as “subsidiaries of the state prison system” could help spare county taxpayers the cost of another jail expansion.

Just as cities within Sedgwick County are now responsible for the cost of housing those arrested on municipal charges, the state should be accountable for the expense of housing felons at the jail — $11,585 a day total for the 175 felons among the 1,556 inmates at the jail this week.

True, unfunded mandates are an old and well-used tool in Topeka as well as Washington, D.C. Over the past decade in Kansas, a bipartisan cast of state leaders variously has cut spending, withheld promised aid and passed the buck — wreaking budgetary havoc for local governments. The House GOP budget proposal for fiscal 2011 crafted last spring by state Rep. Kevin Yoder, now the congressman-elect for the 3rd Congressional District, would have forced local school boards to choose between deep spending cuts and higher property taxes.

When it comes to corrections, the state-local relationship is further strained because state budget cuts over the past two years have eliminated so many of the education, drug-treatment and supportive-housing programs that had made Kansas a national model not only in controlling its prison population numbers but also in reintegrating parolees into communities.

But if counties tolerate the state’s off-loading, they will invite the Legislature to do more of it.

As Sedgwick County Sheriff Robert Hinshaw told The Eagle: “My main concern is that it doesn’t seem to end. The state continues to push this stuff down to us. I think it’s time to make a philosophical stand — this far and no further.”