As the state comes to grips with the problem of swelling prison populations, Sarpy County wants to make sure it has a say in whatever solutions might be proposed.
County Administrator Mark Wayne said the state does not always adequately fund duties it passes on to counties, which are themselves feeling the stress of hard economic times.
The state prison system currently houses almost 4,800 inmates and some state officials have suggested that up to 2,000 of those could safely be held in places less secure than state penitentiaries.
Such alternatives include drug courts, daytime reporting centers, mental health programs and other facilities with less intense restrictions.
Sarpy County’s concern arises from the fact that all or most such programs are the responsibility of counties under state law. A greater reliance on them could force counties to spend more and raise taxes.
The key, Wayne said, is that the state provide adequate funding for the mandates it imposes.
“The state is not always the best at funding the things that they start,” Wayne said. “If, in fact, they are going to change sentencing requirements, or give judges more flexibility to keep prisoners longer in local facilities, or put them in treatment programs at the local level, then they should make sure that’s funded.”
Releasing more prisoners on probation will necessarily require hiring more probation officers, he said, and the county will be responsible for providing them with office space, computers and other necessities.
Tim Gay, who serves as Sarpy County’s lobbyist at the Legislature, said he is keeping a close eye on reform proposals that are making the rounds. He said the county’s request is simply that its case be heard as reform proposals are heard.
If 2,000 prisoners are released and placed under county supervision, the counties of Sarpy, Lancaster and Douglas will be most impacted, he said, because they are the state’s three most populous.
He said a particular concern is continuity.
Often, he said, the state will create a program and fund it, but then future legislatures facing hard times eye that funding as an area of potential savings and leave the counties with an unfunded mandate.
“It’s one of those things where we want to be cautious and be aware of what’s going to happen,” he said. “We just want to be on the front end.”