Proposed Bills Target Kentucky’s System of No-Jail Jailers

Kentucky capitol

Legislative battle lines are forming over how best to address problems associated with the state’s 41 jailers who don’t have jails to run.

One bill has been introduced and another is in the works following recent disclosures by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting that elected jailers in 41 of the state’s 120 counties have no jail to oversee, yet earn salaries ranging from $20,000 to nearly $70,000 annually.

The no-jail jailers’ pay, coupled with that of their nearly 100 deputies, costs taxpayers approximately $2 million annually. (Read: Only in Kentucky: Jailers Without Jails)

KyCIR found that many of the no-jail jailers have few if any regular responsibilities except transporting prisoners, and some do little or none of that. Fiscal courts’ oversight of those jailers often has been lax, and nepotism pervades the century-old system of county jailers, which is the only one of its kind in the country.

In light of these findings, Rep. Phil Moffett, a Louisville Republican, introduced legislation late last week calling for consolidation of the offices of jailer and sheriff in any county that does not have a full-service jail. That approach is expressly permitted by the state constitution, which also holds that the sheriff would then assume whatever duties the jailer had.

Moffett’s bill also would eliminate jailers in counties that have so-called “life-safety jails,” which do not house state inmates.

The bill has been assigned to the House Local Government Committee, where it faces an uncertain future because Committee Chair Steve Riggs, a Democrat from Louisville, favors a different approach, to be contained in a bill sponsored by Democratic Rep. Rita Smart of Richmond.

That legislation, still being drafted, would essentially eliminate no-jail jailers’ salaries and direct local fiscal courts to pay those jailers only for work they actually perform.

“People want their government to be fiscally responsible,” Smart said.

Smart intends to introduce her bill when the legislature reconvenes in February. In addition to Riggs, she apparently has another key ally: House Speaker Greg Stumbo who, Smart said, provided her with recommendations on how to address issues pertaining to no-jail jailers.

 Former Kentucky Attorney General and current Kentucky House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, on the first day of the 2015 legislative session.

Rae Hodge / WFPL

Former Kentucky Attorney General and current Kentucky House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, on the first day of the 2015 legislative session.

Stumbo acknowledged during a recent press conference that some jailers “just don’t do anything.”

While Stumbo has been publicly noncommittal about which specific legislative approach he favors, Smart said she thinks her bill has Stumbo’s support.

It also is more agreeable to sheriffs, who as a group have no interest in taking over jailers’ duties, according to Jerry Wagner, executive director of the Kentucky Sheriffs Association.

Wagner said that when a jailer is earning a big salary but doing virtually no work, as KyCIR documented in the case of former Perry County Jailer Jeanette Hughes, “obviously that’s a problem. But it ought to be addressed at the county level, where the money is being wasted.”

For that reason, Wagner opposes Moffett’s bill and favors what he understands to be the thrust of Smart’s legislation.

Local officials should exercise oversight and demand accountability, Wagner said, and KyCIR’s reporting showed that “in some counties, there hasn’t been much” of either.

The state’s jailers also oppose consolidation of jailers’ and sheriffs’ offices, according to Mike Simpson, president of the Kentucky Jailers Association. The KJA does, however, support more local oversight of jailers, more scrutiny of their hiring practices and more documentation by no-jail jailers of the work they actually do, Simpson said.

Riggs said his House Local Government Committee will consider Smart’s legislation, but he isn’t sure about Moffett’s.

“I know Rep. Smart’s will get a hearing, because I favor that bill,” he said. “(Moffett’s) has some problems.”

Reporter R.G. Dunlop can be reached at rdunlop@kycir.org or (502) 814.6533. This work was supported by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.

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