By Nikki McKim
Following an informative public discussion this past February, the Richardson County Jail Citizen’s Committee members decided to put the discussion of a 40-bed addition to the Richardson County Jail on hold for two years.
Now five months later, the Richardson County Sheriff’s Department is scrambling to find a solution to the increasing jail crowding with no end in sight.
To date, nearly 400 people have been booked in the Richardson County Jail in 2022.
According to Historical Corrections Statistics in the United States, 1850-1984 and Jail Inmates at Midyear 2008, The national jail population grew between 1980 and 2008 from 161,000 to 785,500. In rural areas of the country, the jail population is continuing to boom leading to overcrowding. This stems from policy changes, such as greater reliance on money bail as pretrial populations have surged.
In Richardson County, “business” hasn’t slowed down in the three years that Sheriff Hardesty has taken office.
“The people we arrested in 2019, 2020, and 2021, we’re still arresting in 2022,” he said. “Now there are new ones and all of the sudden, it’s not, ‘hey, you’re going to get probation.’ They keep getting arrested and sent to county jail for a year, which ties up beds.”
Hardesty said they’ve discussed doing away with work release. Inmates are working to be able to have a job when they get out of jail, but Hardesty says those would be the individuals that would be transported someplace else.
“We don’t have to go back and pick them up and bring them back to court. Can you imagine taking somebody to Lexington that has court in two weeks? You’ll spend the whole day driving there and back. A lot of times, we can do it by WebEx, but there’s a lot of times that we can’t if their attorney requests for them to be there.”
Lexington looks to be one of two places that Richardson County will have to transport if or when overcrowding continues. At 268 miles, it would take over four hours to drive one way to transport inmates.
Right now, Richardson County is competing for space in Washington County with Johnson, Pawnee, Otoe, and Nemaha Counties, who are also full. The Washington County facility in Blair, NE, at 126 miles, takes well over 2.5 hours to go one way for transport.
“Everyone in the area is looking to house inmates at Lexington and Blair, Nebraska. Everyone around here is taking their inmates to Blair, and not sure how long that will be an option,” said Hardesty.
Jail Administrator Kristen Morehead does a lot of “wheeling and dealing” each day to try to free up space so time on the road is limited and money is saved.
“Right now, we’re housing for three different counties, Pawnee, Johnson and Gage,” she said.
In a strategy of “swapping the inmates,” Richardson County takes some female inmates in exchange for male inmates.
“We took a female for them [another county] and gave them five males,” said Hardesty.
Many places don’t have female staff, which gives Richardson County an advantage, which is why our jail often houses for other counties. We can take on female inmates when other counties can’t and free up bed space.
When Blair’s full, they’ll have to move to Lexington. When Lexington’s full, Hardesty said, “We keep going west.”
Going to Kansas isn’t an option anymore because they’re overpopulated and the question of Missouri and Iowa, well, the inmates have to give permission to cross state lines.
“Nobody wants to go. Because this is their home, they’ve been here a while,” said Hardesty.
Each day the staff at the Sheriff’s Department meet to go through everybody who’s booked in to figure out when their court dates are so they can send the people with the furthest court dates away.
Facilities need to be called daily and the number of facilities called everyday changes. Morehead said she might call up to eight different places a day, Nemaha County, Nebraska; Otoe County; Washington County, Nebraska; Johnson County; Doniphan County, Kansas; Cass County, Washington County, Kansas and Brown County, Kansas. Each facility may only be able to take one inmate, so it could be an all-day process of finding a place for inmates and transporting them. And these places may not take certain inmates based on their charges.
Richardson County doesn’t employ someone full-time to transport inmates. Someone needs to be called in off the road, or it needs to be worked around someone’s court schedule.
“We don’t have the capability to transport like that all the time,” said Morehead.
A couple of issues now arise—overcrowding and upsetting Jail Standards and the Fire Marshal and having no place to take those arrested.
Jail Standards and the Fire Marshal can shut the jail down.
According to Jail Standards, 18 is full for the Richardson County Jail.
“We’ve been over 18 since May. In the last three weeks, we’ve been floating around that 23, 24, 25 number, you know, and then we did the search warrant, the other night took four that put us at 28. Now we’re at a point where we have to do something because we can’t house 29,” said Hardesty. “And the State Fire Marshal, they aren’t going to play games.”
This is the first year Hardesty said he’s budgeted for out of County holds. Morehead said they’ve never had to do that. They don’t know if what they budgeted for will be enough.
In February, Richardson County had spent $13,534.63 from July 2021 to that point on safekeeping and inmate medical costs by housing inmates outside the County. If you had factored in gas (at that time $3.19) and wages (before the pay increase given to employees a couple of weeks ago), that total jumped to $17,586.83. Based on those totals, the average yearly cost to house and transport inmates was approximately $42,208.39.
The average daily cost is still $55 but could go up because of inflation and gas prices.
Hardesty said that if we start spending $20,000 to $30,000 a year to house inmates somewhere else, it’s not counting fuel and wages/overtime wages and wear and tear on vehicles for transport.
“The issue becomes, we don’t have any places to take them. We’re going to start looking at the cost. So instead of being arrested for felony drug possession, we’ll end up having to issue citations to them,” said Hardesty. “That’ll be anything, burglaries, thefts. The problem we’re going to run into is domestics; we have to arrest somebody. At some point, it’s just too much. Not that we want to issue citations because if people need to go to jail, they need to go to jail. But you have no place to take them. What do you do?”
Morehead and Hardesty acknowledge that they would be in the same situation had the jail addition gotten approved in February as it would have taken time to build, “but at least we would have known that we’re going in that direction,” said Morehead.
“We would have locked in a price,” said Hardesty.
“I don’t think it’s fair to the people of Richardson County to bring somebody in on a drug charge and let them out on a PR bond, you know?” said Hardesty. “I don’t know what the answer is. “We’re not going to stop arresting people until we absolutely have to. The problem is once we’re at 28, we’re done until we have to get them out.”
County Commissioner Rick Karas said he knew this was coming.
“It was pretty obvious because those guys [the Sheriff’s Department] are proactive. And we’ve never had a Sheriff’s Department that was as proactive as them. So it doesn’t surprise me this was coming. It’s going to cost the county way, way, way more money than it would have if we would have gone through with it (building an addition). This isn’t something that’s going to go away. So I guess we’ll take that next step after every place is filled up about what we’re going to do.”
“Right now, we’d be in the same situation whether the job got approved or not,” said Hardesty. “But if it were approved, at least there would be light at the end of the tunnel. Right now, it’s just a long dark tunnel. I think that the important part for the citizens to understand is that there may come a time that we go to their house because somebody broke in and we catch them and we may have to write them a ticket and release them.
The problem is we can only do our job with the tools we’re given. So if we don’t have the tools to do it, then we’re in trouble. And that’s where it becomes an issue. We’re not going to be allowed to have the tools that we need to do our job efficiently and continue what we’re doing now. So I don’t know what the answer is at that point. Honestly, I have no idea.”
Hardesty said the Department would keep going, but there’s going to become a point where they’re not going to be able to continue to do what they’re doing.
In February, the biggest issue raised by the public who attended the meeting was the potential for a tax increase.
Andy Fornay with public finance company D.A. Davidson said the estimated property taxes on a $100,000 property would increase $32 annually on a 15-year bond or a little over $25 annually on a 20-year bond.
In 2019 Richardson County Jail made a total of $39,050.00 in safekeeping income by housing inmates for Pawnee, Otoe, Gage and Nemaha Counties. In 2020 the County made $52,195.00 by housing inmates for Pawnee, Otoe, Gage, Nemaha and Johnson Counties. In 2021 the total went down due to having more of our inmates. Richardson County made $37,070.00 from Pawnee, Otoe, Gage, Nemaha and Johnson Counties.
The committee members announced at the conclusion of the meeting that they needed a little bit more time to investigate this a little bit further as well as get some more statistics from the jail to support being able to whether it’s needed or not. “That was that’s what everybody within the committee came up with. Looking at the general consensus was two years to study on this before we come back,” Ray Joy said at the time of the committee decision in February.