JEFFERSON CITY — Sheriffs from across Missouri are forming an organization they hope will give them more of a voice with state lawmakers about decisions made at the Capitol.
Members of Missouri Sheriffs United, which will represent all 115 sheriffs in the state, said Wednesday the group plans to focus on concerns sheriffs have about a state Department of Corrections program they call "catch and release," along with bond reform measures by the Missouri Supreme Court and money owed by the state to counties for housing prisoners.
The sheriffs said the state owes counties $30 million for housing state prisoners. They also said Gov. Mike Parson, a former sheriff himself, asked the Legislature for $22 million to pay toward this debt this year and has pledged to work with the sheriffs to "ensure jail reimbursement is funded correctly every year."
"We used to believe that making phone calls to our lawmakers would help to make a difference on issues, but we found it wasn't enough," said David Parrish, Missouri Sheriffs Association president and Lewis County sheriff. "We have to come to Jefferson City to fight for our citizens."
Parrish said the sheriffs believe the state's justice system has become too "offender-centered."
"Though not intended that way, some very well-intentioned people have become ultra-focused on people who are committing the crimes while not necessarily focusing on the neighborhoods they are coming from and the victims that we are fighting for," Parrish said. "We know that bureaucrats sometimes have a greater voice in this building, but we are asking our lawmakers to be cognizant of what we're seeing at the local level."
During Wednesday's news conference, the sheriffs noted not paying the counties for housing prisoners for the state means lost revenue for the local communities.
State statute requires sheriffs to accept prisoners; if they don't, they can be charged with a misdemeanor. The sheriffs also noted that since 1976, a state statute has required the state to pay the per diem for housing state prisoners in county jails. It started at $17 and was raised to $20, and in 1996, it went to a maximum $37.50. After fluctuating for several years, the per diem rate is currently $22.58.
The sheriffs noted state figures show it costs the state $65 a day to a house a prisoner at a state prisoner.
The sheriffs also claimed that in years past, an inmate sentenced to prison for three years would have to serve the entire sentence. Now, the sheriffs said, the inmates are serving one to two months a year for every year they are sentenced.
Another matter the sheriffs want addressed is whether local jails are becoming holding facilities for parole offenders. They claim that many times, instead of going back to a state prison, offenders are given a summons to appear in court and released without serving any time in the Department of Corrections.
Johnson County Sheriff Scott Munsterman said many of those people who get summons to appear in court aren't showing up, meaning his department has to go and pick them up.
"My failure-to-appear rate has gone up 28 percent," Munstermann said. "Non-violent does not necessarily mean that these people will be non-dangerous."
Parrish said fixing these problems won't happen overnight, as the sheriffs pointed out that since 1996 funding has been directed at other programs and not at addressing the funding needed to address things like the per diem shortfall.
Callaway County Presiding Commissioner Gary Jungermann, who also heads the County Commissioners Association of Missouri, said commissioners support the sheriffs in what they're asking to be addressed.
"Across the state, the sheriff's departments are 50 percent of the general revenue pot that county commissions have to work with," Jungermanm said. "With the way things are going with the new Supreme Court laws and the prisoner per diem, our budgets are growing, not shrinking, to try and take care of this. The small counties in the state are suffering the most. The larger counties with a larger revenue stream, we're getting through, but it's very frustrating when citizens who have been through a burglary have to wonder why the person who did this is back out on the street."
Cole County Sheriff John Wheeler said while what DOC officials have said is true — approximately 97 percent of state prisoners will eventually be released back into communities — there are not enough probation and parole officers now to make sure they stay in the parameters of their release.
"In Cole County we have a lot of alternative programs that have helped, like the alternative courts and pre-trial release, and if a person is found to have violated conditions of their release our judges are quick to bring them back, " Wheeler said. "We understand the plight that DOC is facing, but money directly correlates to staffing. If DOC had a program to reduce recidivism in Cole County by 50 percent, but I don't have the staff to implement it. I'm short 13 people in the jail right now."
DOC spokeswoman Karen Pojmann said the department took issue Wednesday with many of the things the sheriffs mentioned.
"There absolutely is no 'catch-and-release' practice in Missouri," Pojmann said. "Probation and parole processes are carried out in accordance with the Constitution and state law."
Pojmann said probationers are under the jurisdiction of the courts. Parolees — those released from prison — are under the jurisdiction of the Missouri Board of Parole. The Division of Probation and Parole supervises these Missourians for the courts and the board.
"Decisions regarding parole violations are made by the courts and the board, not by the DOC," Pojmann said.
Pojmann also gave figures which she said showed the percentage of offenders revoked to prison for violations has increased in recent years, from 36.4 percent in 2014 to 48 percent in 2019. Pojmann also said DOC figures show the average percentage of an original sentence an offender serves in prison before being paroled has slightly increased from 50 percent in 2015 to more than 52 percent in 2019.
"So if someone was ordered to serve a six-year prison term, if they were granted parole, they would be serving three-four years of that sentence."
"We are here on behalf of our local law-abiding citizens to remind very well intentioned people in the Capitol that what we're facing is real and something has to be done," Parrish said. "We hear too often about what is wrong with society and why isn't more done for those that are indigent, but there is a simple way to address this — don't violate the law. Be firm and fair, and hold them accountable."
On the issue of jail reimbursements, Jungermann has been working alongside Callaway County Sheriff Clay Chism to bring attention to the debt owed to counties.
"As sad as it sounds, the County Commission and I are so accustomed to this issue, we literally assume during budget meetings that the state will owe us between $300,000 and $400,000 on any given day," Chism wrote in an email.
Currently, the state owes Callaway County $328,000 in reimbursements.
"It's important for citizens to know these reimbursements are not the result of some handshake agreement," Chism wrote. "It is state law!"
Chism met with Parson on Tuesday to discuss the issue, and Jungermann rounded up several other Missouri county commissioners to support the sheriffs at Wednesday's press conference.
"The concern that we have is it's getting worse and worse as years go by," Jungermann said.
Chism notes that this year, several other organizations and the governor have gotten significantly more involved with the issue.
"I think that we're on a good road," Jungermann said. "Is it going to be perfect? Is it going to be resolved this year? No. But there is a good effort to get paid a good portion of what they owe."