Bart Mercer

File / The Herald

Elmore County commissioner Bart Mercer indicated the costs to fund the sheriff's department and county jail have increased due to laws passed at the state level to reduce state prison overcrowding.

A report recently published by the Association of County Commissions of Alabama revealed sentencing reforms passed by the state legislature in 2015 increased the operational costs of nearly every county jail and sheriff’s department in the state.

The reforms were passed to deal with the prison overcrowding issue at state prisons. 

It reduced prison overcrowding but, according to a report by the county commissions, dramatically increased the number of prisoners being sent to county jails. 

The increased number of prisoners in county jails shifted much of the costs to the county level.

“It’s happened in every county,” Elmore County commissioner Bart Mercer said. “It’s happened statewide. I applaud our state legislature for trying to do something to do with our inmate population. Our state facilities are overcrowded.”

Mercer said when the Alabama Legislature created a task force in 2014 to create solutions to the state’s overcrowding issue, two of its members — one a former county commissioner, the other a county sheriff — indicated the decision would negatively impact county budgets.

“The counties are the ones really impacted by this,” Mercer said. “You’re going to remove (Alabama) Department of Corrections inmates from state facilities. They wind up sitting in county facilities longer. That’s going to increase the cost of operations for our sheriffs and county jails. That’s what happened.”

According to the report, the cost to operate the Elmore County Jail increased from $2,069,814 in 2014 to $2,227,906 in 2018 — an increase of $158,092. 

The annual cost to operate the Elmore County Sheriff’s Department rose $58,691 from $4,019,196 to $4,077,887 during the same period.

“From 2014 to 2018 statewide, the population of state inmates in county jails increased by 5,800 inmates,” Mercer said. “The reason we see this is happening is it has to do with how they treat parole violators.”

In 2015, the legislature changed the punishment for most parole violations, such as failure to find work or a failed drug test from revocation of parole to a 48-hour stay in the county jail. The Alabama justice system calls this a “dip.” 

A parolee who continues to violate the terms of the parole can get up to six dips before he or she gets sent back to prison; but not for the remainder of his or her sentence. Instead they go to prison for just 45 days which is called a “dunk.”

There was already a backlog of prisoners who have already had a trial, have been convicted and were sitting in the county jail waiting for ADOC to come pick them up. The creation of the dunk system means now all those repeat parole violators are also waiting in the county jail for ADOC to free up prison beds so they can serve their 45 days.

“What they did with the new sent guidelines is it ultimately resulted in more inmates staying longer in the county prisons,” Mercer said. “Those are the two primary reasons we are having such an increase. There are other reasons, but those are the primary reasons.”

According to the report, in 2014, a total of 1,990 state inmates were housed in county jails. In 2018, counties housed almost 8,000 state inmates in 2018.

The cost of operating the jail and law enforcement at the county level has increased by $63 million since 2014, the report shows.

“Increasing any revenue is not an option,” Mercer said. “We have to look within to see how we can reallocate funds, maybe not do somethings we wanted to do and adjust the budget where we need to so we can do what is most important.”

The State of Alabama does not reimburse counties for the increased costs, which have soared after the passage of the sentencing reforms that were passed in 2015.