In the first days of the Kentucky’s 2015 legislative session, several lawmakers have pledged changes to the state’s jailers system.
This follows reports last week by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting that showed how elected jailers in 41 of the state’s 120 counties had no jail to oversee, yet earned salaries ranging from $20,000 to nearly $70,000 annually. The reports also examined lax oversight and nepotism in the century-old jailers system, the only one of its kind in the country. (Read: Only in Kentucky: Jailers Without Jails)
A bill to be introduced soon in the House of Representatives is expected to propose doing away with no-jail jailers’ annual salaries, and compensating those jailers only for specific services performed, such as prisoner transport or courtroom security.
State Rep. Steve Riggs, a Louisville Democrat and chair of the House Local Government Committee, said he plans to support the measure and hold hearings on it next month.
But Riggs also said some legislators are “defensive” about the issue of no-jail jailers. And leaders both in the House and Senate responded cautiously to, and did not immediately embrace, the need for state action.
When House Speaker Greg Stumbo was asked during a Tuesday press conference for his thoughts, he said he would support a plan to “adjust (jailers’) salaries…to give the local governments flexibility.”
But those governments already have at least some such flexibility; they can set a no-jail jailer’s salary anywhere within a state-approved range, between $20,000 and $70,398.
KyCIR’s review found that about a third of the 41 no-jail jailers were paid $40,000 or more per year.
The state constitution also gives the legislature the authority to merge the offices of jailer and sheriff in any county. The sheriff would then assume the jailer’s duties.
But while Stumbo acknowledged that some jailers “don’t do anything,” he seemed to put the onus on local officials to address the problem:
“Obviously, I favor letting the locals control it. It’s their money,” he said. “If they want to pay somebody for doing nothing, I guess the taxpayers in their district can talk to them about that. But it needs to be addressed.”
Stumbo’s spokesman, Brian Wilkerson, told KyCIR later the speaker “believes that counties should have the ability to decide how they want to proceed when it comes to jails and their related costs. He’s open to discussion on how best to accomplish that goal.”
State Senate President Robert Stivers and Majority Leader Damon Thayer said through a spokeswoman that if legislation is introduced, “ they will be looking for it and ready to discuss and look at it.”
Spokeswoman Teresa Hill added: “As (you) know, (the) devil is always in the details of the actual bill.”
Many of the no-jail jailers told KyCIR that they often had little to do until they received a telephone call instructing them to transport a prisoner to or from a functioning jail. Some jailers also have sufficient free hours to work other jobs, at least a few of which are full-time. Other jailers employ their wives and children as deputies. Altogether, the jailers’ and deputies’ salaries cost taxpayers a total of approximately $2 million annually.
Public reaction to the investigative report was swift. Some, including the Courier-Journal’s editorial page, called for legislative action.
Several non-leadership legislators also spoke forcefully this week about the need for action.
Joe Bowen, chair of the Senate State and Local Government committee, said there is “significant concern among legislators” about the issue, and “a sense of urgency about being good stewards of taxpayers’ dollars.”
But Bowen and others also noted that this year’s legislative session is a short one, just 30 working days, and that there are other pressing issues to address.
Louisville Rep. Tom Burch said that, if given the chance, he would vote to eliminate no-jail jailers. But he said he is not optimistic about prospects for doing that, because rural counties are “where you run into the problem of not wanting to eliminate the job.”
And several House and Senate leaders who play key roles in controlling the flow of legislation represent many of those rural counties
Plus, Burch said, “we’ve got enough on our plate right now.”
Reporter R.G. Dunlop can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (502) 814.6533. This work was supported by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.