Who should pay for prisoners?

MONTESANO — Sheriff Mike Whelan is asking the county commissioners permission to pass more of the costs of incarcerating prisoners on to the cities.

Whelan is asking to boost the daily housing fee for incarceration from $65 per day to $70 per day, beginning Jan. 1, 2013. He also wants to pass on more of the medical care costs.

“If this new contract and the proposed changes are enacted, I expect the savings to Grays Harbor County to be substantial,” Whelan wrote to the commissioners in a May 9 letter.

Whelan told The Daily World that the cost savings are still being worked out. A savings to the county would mean that cities could be paying more.

Aberdeen Deputy Chief Dave Timmons says that the problem starts at the state, which continues to pass on expenses to the county.

“We’re at the bottom rung,” Timmons said. “The county passes on expenses to us and then we get stuck with them. What’s amazing is a perfectly healthy inmate suddenly develops a need to see a doctor as soon as he or she is in jail. And then the costs just explode.”

“In the 14 years I have been sheriff we have not raised the rates to house inmates in the Grays Harbor County jail,” Whelan wrote to the commissioners. “In the meantime, food, labor, fuel and other costs have all gone up dramatically.”

Whelan says it’s probably been closer to 20 years since the rate went up. To ensure the rate goes up more frequently, he’s also proposing the rate go up on an annual basis from 1 to 5 percent, based on the consumer price index.

“I take money that should be going to the deputies to cover for correction costs all the time,” Whelan said.

State law makes it the financial responsibility of the county to house prisoners arrested for a felony. However, misdemeanor offenders are the responsibility of the cities. Those misdemeanor crimes include non-serious assaults, DUIs and petty theft, among others.

The Aberdeen Police Department has its own jail to handle misdemeanor crimes, although sometimes they use the county. Hoquiam, however, doesn’t have its own jail operating every day and relies on the county often.

Hoquiam Police Chief Jeff Myers says that last year Hoquiam spent about $99,000 to house prisoners outside of the city at the jails in Lewis County, at Grays Harbor County and in Forks.

Myers said that Hoquiam buys blocks of 100 beds at the county jail at a time at a reduced rate. The contract guarantees his officers can send someone to the county jail even if it’s full.

“Raising the rates by $5 wouldn’t surprise me since it’s been so long,” Myers said. “Although, the costs would add up. The shocker is suddenly shifting felony medical costs to the cities. Although I understand the plight of the county budget, the cities are in no better position to absorb these expenses and continuing to shuffle the bill and expect them to find that money doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

The cities pay medical costs for inmates on misdemeanor crimes. But the new policy proposed by the sheriff would make cities pay medical costs for those in the county jail on a felony crime, as well. That simply hasn’t been done before, Myers said, comparing it to the County Prosecutor’s Office suddenly deciding to send a bill to the cities for prosecuting a murder or felony assault.

But Whelan says it’s completely legal, citing state law that says the county may “obtain reimbursement for the cost of such medical services from the unit of government” whose police officers arrested the person who ends up in jail.

“This is a big change,” Whelan said. “And it’s concerning that costs of arresting someone may play into the mind of an officer, who could decide not to arrest someone because of a medical condition. But our budget is so tight that we really have no choice.”

“I know they have the right to seek the reimbursement, but that doesn’t mean they should,” Timmons said.

Myers says he carefully watches all of the medical bills that come in for inmates and often fights hospital charges when he thinks the city is being overcharged or charged improperly, citing a recent $16,000 medical bill for a suspect who got hurt when he was eluding police officers.

“The inmate got hurt before he was ever in our custody, which means those charges are on the inmate, not the city,” Myers said.

But he says felony inmates are completely out of his control since they involve the prosecutor, the Sheriff’s Office and Superior Court judges — all outside the municipal system.

“They’ll send me the bill and expect us to pay no matter what,” Myers said. “This could cost us thousands and thousands of dollars.”