The Week in Public Finance: Facing Overcrowded Jails, Counties Turn to Voters for Help (Without Much Luck)
County jail populations are booming, even as state prison populations decline. It's forcing some places to turn to the taxpayers for help.
States have been talking a lot about their prison reform efforts over the past decade. Texas, for instance, was recently lauded by President Trump as a national model for its reforms, which have led to falling incarceration rates, a record number of prison closures and savings of more than $3 billion.
But for reasons that are not entirely clear, many counties across the country are seeing the opposite: overcrowded jails and skyrocketing expenses.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, county corrections costs, after accounting for inflation, increased by a third between 2000 and 2012, and the jail population increased by 20 percent. Meanwhile, state prison populations climbed by less than half that rate, and spending increased by just 10 percent.
More recent statistics are not as comprehensive, but anecdotally county administrators say the financial pressure from jails has become even more acute in recent years. “We have people sleeping on floors,” says Douglas County, Kan., Commission Chair Nancy Thellman.
Over the past five years, the jail population in Douglas County has grown to roughly 240 people, or more than 40 percent over its functional capacity. Thellman says that the population today could be as high as 400 people if the county didn’t already take mitigating measures, such as releasing nonviolent and petty offenders before trial. The county has asked voters in an election by mail to approve a half-cent sales tax to fund a $44 million jail expansion. Ballots will be counted May 15.
Douglas County is far from the only jurisdiction trying to expand jails to accommodate a growing incarcerated population. But so far, most aren’t having much luck getting taxpayers to help.
In a “how-to” on building public support for jail projects, consulting group TreanorHL recommends proposing an easier-to-swallow, half-cent sales tax instead of a one-cent increase, or suggests emphasizing the social service needs that will be met with an expansion. “If it's not a real need," says TreanorHL Principal Dan Rowe, "the public will not buy it."
Still, even in the era of prison reform, expansions are a hard sell. In Pueblo, Colo., the county jail is at 147 percent capacity, making it the most overcrowded in the state. But voters have twice rejected a half-cent sales tax increase to pay for a new one, even after officials modified the second proposal to include a state-of-the-art detoxification and health facility with a focus on opioid addiction -- a major problem in the area.
Douglas County has taken a page from Pueblo and proposed new funding for mental health services if the half-cent sales tax is approved. But if it fails, the county has warned that it will pay for the expansion via budget cuts. In that scenario, the county would likely siphon off $4 million a year from its $90 million budget to pay for the expansion in phases over the course of 16 years.
It’s the most expensive and least efficient way of doing it, says Thellman. But in the county’s view, the current situation is unsafe and a money drain. Inmates aren’t being properly separated between minimum-, medium- and maximum-security cells, and as a result jail guards are sending out distress calls multiple times a week instead of once every few weeks. What's more, it’s costing $1 million a year to house county inmates in other jurisdictions with more room.
The threat hasn't gone over well with the community. “Can you say, ‘hostage?’” one local resident wrote in a letter to the Lawrence-Journal World. The opposition has even attracted money from the anti-tax group Americans for Prosperity.
Thellman acknowledges that the county’s position on the jail funding has been the most controversial aspect of the proposal. But to her, “that’s just the county commission being honest about how serious the condition is at our jail.”
In other public finance news this week:
St. Louis Downgraded Again
Moody’s Investors Service has slapped St. Louis with its third downgrade in two years, bumping the city to Baa1. In its one-notch downgrade, Moody’s highlighted St. Louis’ low cash reserves and “highly leveraged tax base,” which it attributes to the fact that the city is forking $1 out of every $5 over to pay debt and pensions.
Some capitalized on the opportunity to criticize recent spending on upgrades to the city-owned Scottrade Center, where the NHL’s St. Louis Blues play. “What is most disappointing is that it did not have to happen,” Comptroller Darlene Green said in a statement, adding that Moody’s warned the city a year ago that it couldn’t continue increasing its debt on nonessentials. “This Moody's downgrade should serve as a wake-up call to all city leaders,” she said. “We cannot continue to prioritize incentive packages to special interests.”
Nassar Scandal Brings Credit Downgrade to Michigan State
Citing financial risk from the growing number of sex abuse lawsuits related to former sports physician Larry Nassar, Moody’s has downgraded Michigan State University’s credit rating. In its downgrade to Aa1, Moody’s noted “the financial ramification could be material” as the university faces thin margins over the short-term thanks to rising legal costs and risk management investments. The Michigan Legislature is also considering a slew of bills that could negatively impact the university financially.
In January, a judge sentenced Nassar, who was a longtime physician for the university and USA Gymnastics, to up to 175 years in prison for sexual misconduct. Nassar's history of abuse involved more than 156 girls and women and spanned more than two decades. Michigan State is also facing civil lawsuits from more than 100 women who allege that the university turned a blind eye. Nassar’s conviction prompted the resignation of the university's president, the athletic director’s early retirement and a slew of investigations by federal departments, lawmakers and the National Collegiate Athletics Association. The management turmoil and increased scrutiny adds to the university’s problems, said Moody’s.
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