Jail problems aren’t going to be solved with antagonistic approach

Published 9:17 am Thursday, March 8, 2018


The Advocate-Messenger

Elected officials should never “shut up” when it comes to trying to ensure their constituents’ tax dollars are spent wisely.

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But that’s essentially what magistrate Phil Sammons suggested Mercer County officials do when it comes to questioning the cost of jail services being provided by the Boyle County Detention Center. Boyle County Jailer Barry Harmon seemed to suggest he agreed with Sammons, but has since said he meant he wants officials to focus on solutions, not fighting with each other.

Telling someone to shut up is not how neighbors should treat one another.

Sammons and Harmon took offense that Mercer magistrates were questioning expense allocations and hired an attorney to examine jail costs.

Hiring an attorney instead of dealing with Boyle officials directly may not have been the friendliest move, but it was well within Mercer’s right to do so. It would be within Boyle’s right as well if the shoe were on the other foot. Boyle officials probably wouldn’t like it if they were told they couldn’t investigate their own expenses.

Somewhere along the way, we have forgotten this is supposed to be a partnership.

Boyle and Mercer counties have shared the costs of operating the Boyle County Detention Center for around two decades. The counties operate under an interlocal agreement set up in the late 1990s.

Boyle currently pays 65 percent of the expenses, while Mercer pays 35 percent. That ratio is designed to be based on the percentage of prisoners each county has in the jail, but there’s a floor that prevents Mercer from paying any less than 35 percent.

Mercer County’s percentage of the total inmate population has been below 35 percent for years, prompting Mercer magistrates to seek a new agreement that takes their smaller percentage of inmates into account.

Many things have changed in the past 20 years. Now is a good time to review the two-decade-old agreement, and there have been efforts from both sides to do so. Officials for both counties continue to ask questions and gather data on jail costs at every Joint Jail Committee meeting, with the intent of eventually proposing a new interlocal agreement.

There’s also work continuing on a jail assessment with Brandstetter Carroll that should lead to solutions that help control costs and reduce the jail population — but those solutions will likely require increased cooperation between the counties and agencies working throughout the criminal justice system.

These efforts at working together and developing solutions all sides find acceptable should be allowed to run their courses. An antagonistic approach doesn’t serve anyone well and is counter-productive.

We hope officials from the two counties let the most recent controversial comments go, wipe the slate clean and continue to work on a solution together.

As it considers what it wants, Mercer County should analyze what it would cost to build and operate its own jail or to house inmates in other nearby (or not-so-nearby) facilities. Boyle officials need to carefully evaluate what it would cost them to eliminate the partnership with Mercer. Our guess is both sides will realize they’re better off financially — and politically — if they work together.

Crime and punishment is an expensive endeavor in today’s climate. Boyle is spending more than $1.5 million out of its general fund on the jail and Mercer’s share is approaching $1 million.

To think that Boyle and Mercer counties don’t have much to be gained from working with one another is short-sighted, at best.

Partnerships are built on trust, respect and fairness. That starts with being able to talk openly and honestly about the joint challenges facing our communities.