Originally created 12/17/05

Police seek increase in inmate reimbursement



ATLANTA - Sheriffs across Georgia are appealing to state lawmakers to do something next year about state inmates overstaying their welcome in local jails.

This year, 19,000 state prisoners have gone through the county jail system largely because of a shortage in Georgia prison space.

Local officials want the state to either start building extra rooms or paying more in boarding and health care expenses.

"We need some help there. The health care costs are astronomical," Douglas County Commission Chairman Tom Worthan said. "We've got to provide them with whatever health care they need whether that's going to the dentist or going to the heart doctor."

Adding to the burden on local governments and their budgets is having to absorb prisoners for the state, which now reimburses sheriffs far less than the average cost to house the inmates.

"The sheriffs are talking about it, absolutely," said Sen. Ralph Hudgens, R-Comer, whose conversations with law enforcement officials in Walton, Barrow, Madison, Jackson and Elbert counties have had a similar message.

"All of them within the last year, they bring it up, saying this is costing them more than (the current reimbursement rate) and the state needs to move these state prisoners out quicker."

In 1996, the Georgia Department of Corrections began paying a $20 daily subsidy to counties for housing a state prisoner - an amount that has slowly crept up from $5 a day in 1979.

But a recent survey of county jails shows that sheriffs are paying an average of $41 a day to house an inmate, according to the state Department of Audit and Accounts.

The difference between the expense and the state's per diem can put a strain on county budgets.

For example, Richmond County is currently paying about $5,600 a day from its jail funding because of state prisoners.

Chief Jailer Charles Toole Sr. said the jail located in Augusta has 200 state prisoners in custody, and it costs an average of $48 a day to pay for housing any inmate.

Counties also are expected to pick up costs for routine medical care, while the state will send back money to cover emergency hospital needs.

Richmond County Sheriff Ronnie Strength said he'd support an increase in the state per diem for inmates being held in Augusta's jails.

"It should be increased to at least what it costs us, costs the taxpayers," Sheriff Strength said. "Taxpayers are paying the balance."

Since 2003, Georgia has reimbursed county jails $1.9 million for health expenses of state inmates, according to the performance audit report.

Part of the shuffle has to do with the state's near-capacity prison system. As of October, only about 600 beds of the state's 46,000 prison slots were available. But the Corrections Department is in the middle of building-expansion plans that should add space for nearly 2,000 prisoners in the state system.

During the 2005 budget year, the state agency paid $14.6 million for expenses of state inmates in county jails, according to the audit report. It would cost the state an estimated $8 million a year to leave the $20 daily reimbursement rate intact.

A legislative decision to increase the counties' per diem fee to $30 would cost the state $12.1 million. Moving to a $40 reimbursement would cost the state $16.1 million, the audit report stated.

The report also looked at what would happen if the state began paying counties immediately after an inmate's paperwork is in place.

Under current policy, the state waits 15 days after receiving sentencing information before starting to apply the daily reimbursement.

Reach Vicky Eckenrode at (404) 589-8424 or vicky.eckenrode@morris.com.