On any given day, several hundred prisoners of the state of Idaho are housed in county jails. For the last half year it averages to more than 630, and the state paid the counties about $1 million a month to keep them. They’re there for short stays, like if someone violates parole or has just been sentenced and it might take some time to get his or her spot ready at the state prison.
The Idaho Department of Correction reimburses the counties $45 a day, per inmate, an amount set by the state in law. For some counties, that’s close to how much it costs. But for others, it doesn't cover expenses. In Ada County it costs, on average, more than $90 a day to house an inmate.
“You can’t really even get a hotel in Ada County for 45 dollars a day,” says Chief Deputy Ron Freeman. “And we are really the largest bed and breakfast here in Ada County. It’s expensive. Jails are expensive.”
The watchdog website Boise Guardian, which first reported on the issue, views that discrepancy between actual costs and reimbursement rate as Ada County taxpayers giving the state money.
Last year the Ada County Jail averaged 138 state prisoners a day. That means state payments fell more than $6,000 a day short, or about $2.26 million a year.
Ada County Chief Deputy Ron Freeman says Idaho sheriffs have lobbied lawmakers to raise the daily amount for a long time.
“Absolutely we’d like to see that rate go up,” Freeman says. “Sheriff Bartlett is working closely with the Idaho Sheriffs’ Association. They’re working with legislators to look at those numbers. But ultimately [the lawmakers] make that decision.”
If the counties could charge more to house state prisoners, lawmakers might have to put several million more dollars a year into corrections. Most Idaho counties house state inmates. That includes places with severe prisoner overcrowding like Canyon County.
Freeman says they’re working with the Idaho Department of Correction to reduce the number of state prisoners in the county jail. He thinks that legally the county could get away with refusing to take state prisoners. But he says they wouldn’t do that because they value the working relationship with the Idaho Department of Correction.
Sheriff Stephen Bartlett thinks services state corrections provides the county come close to making up the cost to house state prisoners. For example, he says, if someone is arrested on an Ada County warrant in a far flung corner of Idaho, state corrections will transport the prisoner to Boise for free.
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