KCUR News
1:51 am
Sun March 1, 2009

Regional Jail Gains Momentum

Kansas City, MO – For more than a century, Kansas City has operated its own municipal jail. That may soon change. City and county officials are close to reaching a final agreement to shut down the jail and move inmates to the county facility. Local leaders say the plan marks a positive step towards creating a more efficient and effective regional system. But, as KCUR's Elana Gordon reports, some are skeptical.

The city's municipal correctional institution, or MCI, is located in Eastern Kansas City on what used to be a hog farm. Some people still refer to MCI as "the farm." It's a low security jail for people charged with things like drug paraphernalia, stealing, and domestic violence. There's also people in for trespassing, resisting arrest, and driving without a valid driver's license. The aging facility needs millions of dollars in renovations, and city leaders are increasingly concerned about the ongoing costs of running it. During a recent committee meeting, Councilwoman Cathy Jolly said the city's finally reached a breaking point.

Jolly:We have an 85 million dollar shortfall in our budget - that is very real. Keeping MCI open is not an option.

Local leaders have long considered the creation of a regional jail - and, many county and city officials say consolidating detention services makes a lot of sense right now. Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders recently told council members that the County has room downtown for the some 150 city inmates.

Sanders: The community justice building which is literally right next door to our current jail - at one time was used as a correctional facility - housed female inmates, used as a detention facility - and for very low cost can be rehabbed to serve that purpose ultimately for municipal inmates.

With next year's budget deadline fast approaching, the City and County are close to reaching a final deal that would shut down MCI and move city inmates in to the county jail. After reviewing a preliminary agreement last month, the council authorized the city to enter into contract negotiations with county. Councilwoman Jolly says the plan would save the city a million dollars next year. Mayor Mark Funkhouser says he agrees with the concept, but had wanted more time to review details of the preliminary agreement.

Funkhouser: I'm simply uncomfortable with the haste.

The agreement would require the city to shore up to 1.2 million dollars to renovate the unused county jail space. That's in addition to regular inmate fees. It would allow for other agreements with Clay and Platte counties. Current municipal jail employees would stay on the city pay role in other positions, according to the city manager's proposed budget. County Executive Sanders suggested they might be employed at the regional facility. Councilwoman Deb Hermann says the project beats keeping MCI open but she still has questions about the project's finances.

Hermann: It does commit us to $57 perinmate, and it is 150 inmates. It commits us to provide all programming. It commits us to provide all transportation. And the fact that employees will be retained by the city, I don't know what overall savings we'll have.

Besides financial questions, social services advocates have also expressed concerns.

Flory: Will moving MCI to the county eliminate needed mental health services?

Alan Flory recently posed that question to council members - he's president of Rediscover, a mental health center that currently provides services to municipal inmates. Rediscover is just one of many health and social services organizations that works with MCI. That's because MCI estimates that more than half of its inmates have a mental illness. Experts say that addressing inmate's untreated mental health and substance abuse issues is essential to preventing future criminal activity. Joanne Katz is a criminal justice professor at Missouri Western State University. She recently told council members they need to better analyze how those services would work if inmates are moved to the county.

Katz: MCI is kind of like - everyone knows about it - I spend time in jails and prisons throughout the state as part of my academic work - What happens at MCI is very unique, so the idea that this is going to get replicated so easily I think is a little unrealistic.

Councilwoman Jolly says the city aims to keep that continuum of care.

Jolly: Everyone's goal is to maintain as best as we can with the shortfall of money that we have.

Jolly says the county jail plan also beats the other even cheaper option that council members have been considering: to move city inmates to a private jail in Northern Missouri where no such services would be available. City and County leaders say when there's more money, they hope to build a new state-of-the-art regional jail. Councilman Terry Riley says the current plan marks a bold step towards that vision.

Riley: I think it's smart government, I think it's being smart with our money, and it's time for kc to get out of the housing of prisoner business - we need to get out of the jail business.

The city and county are currently working out logistics of the plan and expect to have a formal contract ready within the next two weeks. It would then go to the city council and county for final approval.