Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Cheaper, not just safer, to fully staff local lockups

I've been harping for a while on the fact that failing to adequately staff prisons and jails makes it less safe for both those incarcerated and those keeping them locked up.

Another aspect of the short-staffing crisis that gets less attention is that it's cheaper, as well as safer, to run an adequately staffed jail that doesn't rely on overtime for core staffing. In Nueces County, reports the Corpus Christi Caller Times ("Sheriff's cuts lead to likely budget surplus," April 22):

Midway through fiscal year 2007-08, County Auditor Peggy Hayes projects that the sheriff's department will come in 4.26 percent under its $5.06 million budget and that the jail will come in 1.4 percent under its $11.7 million budget.

Corrections officers previously worked four 12-hour shifts a week, which meant eight hours of overtime per officer was designed into the schedule. Officers now work five eight-hour shifts, and only accrue overtime if they work extra shifts. ...

In addition to making those changes since taking office in 2006, Sheriff Jim Kaelin also has brought the 312-person department to nearly full staff. That nearly full staff has reduced the need for overtime to offset vacant positions.

Last year, the sheriff's department went $850,000 over its $700,000 overtime budget. This year, it should come in at least $200,000 under, Hayes said.

The sheriff's department went over budget in 2005, 2006 and 2007 and the jail went over budget in 2006 and 2007.

"The budget has been reduced and some of the operating expenditures have been reduced," Commissioner Oscar Ortiz said after a mid-year budget review Tuesday. "First of all you have to give the sheriff credit. His administration has been able to do something that we have been unable to do for years."

At the end of the fiscal year, Sept. 30, any budget savings in Kaelin's or any other department will revert back to the county's general fund reserves. During county budget workshops beginning in May, county commissioners will determine where those savings will be spent.

The majority of the savings in Kaelin's organization come from overtime cutbacks.

"We had $1.5 million in overtime costs last year," Kaelin said. "I was new on the job, and I could not fix anything until I understood it. This time we will come in under the $700,000. That was accomplished by the shift change and fixing some staffing issues."

The same thing is happening statewide at county jails, state-run and private prisons, at TYC, and even federal lockups: No one can hire enough prison guards, so the unspent salary is cannibalized to pay for overtime costs, but at considerably greater expense overall to the taxpayer for the same jail services. Employees might like overtime in the short term because it puts more money in their pocket, but it's safer in the long run to operate state and local lockups with enough full-time staff to stick to a 40-hour week, and it saves the employing jurisdiction extra overtime costs.

Another significant source of savings in Nueces County, reports the Caller Times, came from shifting previously privatized jail transportation services back to the Sheriff's department.

Another large savings -- roughly $53,929 this year versus $162,973 last year comes via Kaelin's dismissal of a private prisoner transportation contract, county officials said during Tuesday's budget review.

After local courts issue a warrant for someone's arrest, if the person is apprehended by law enforcement in other areas of Texas, Kaelin must send someone to transport the prisoner.

Before he took office, a private transport company was charging the county an average of $619 per prisoner transported, moving 263 in fiscal year 2006-07. Over the past seven months, deputies have transported prisoners for an average of $63.37 per person and have moved 851.

"That covers gas, officers' per diem, which is overnight lodging if they go to Dallas or Fort Worth and pick people up who are wanted here on outstanding warrants," Kaelin said. "It's a tremendous savings in that budget. And we have doubled the number we are picking up."

In December, the county also voted on Kaelin's recommendation to switch food service providers from Mid-America Services, which charged $1.17 per meal, to Philadelphia-based Aramark, at a cost of $1.03.

"Those numbers seem small, but that's $80,000 to $100,000 a year less than what we were paying," Kaelin said Thursday.

Likely most counties facing high jail costs could look to these same two sources to reduce them - increasing staffing enough to cover base shifts on base pay, and evaluating privatized services for cheaper alternatives, including bringing some of them back in-house.

The Caller Times reported that "Last Tuesday, all four members of the Commissioners Court said operations at the sheriff's department were the high point of their day." For those of you in jail administration, when was the last time you read a comment like that in the paper about your local lockup?


Anonymous said...

Holy crap! A success story involving a county jail! So, it is possible to do it right. I hope the Dallas County commissioners take notice.

Anonymous said...

If only this kind of think would catch on, and not only in county jails.

BTW, have you heard anything about Dawson in Dallas being taken over? I've been hearing rumors. Gods know that place could use a serious overhaul.

Unknown said...

The irony is that overworked people also are less alert and efficient. Some studies have shown that the optimal work day is 6 hours. So even the eight hour day is too inefficient. What surprises me is that even the benefits required to hire extra people don't overwhelm the overtime expense. But my guess is that counties chintz on health insurance and retirement.

Anonymous said...

It is not only cheaper to fully staff correctional facilities, it is actually cheaper in the long run to pay the employees much higher salaries. Then you have a consistent, committed, stable workforce, reducing the need for human resources, recruiters, trainers, advertising, etc. etc. etc.

Anonymous said...

Just think how much money the State of Texas would save if they stopped the stupidity of just locking everyone up for things that were not proven.

Also when someone is released, release them from the unit they are in and let the family go pick them up their. If there is no family, then they can ride the bus from anywhere to home or where they are going to reside.

With diesel above $4.00/gal and probably will rise, why take everyone back to Huntsville to be released. Think of the hardship this causes the person being released and the family having to drive for hundreds of miles to get their loved one; who makes these insane laws anyway. There are computers and the certificate is sent to the unit the person resides in anyway, so what reason do we spend millions just to hassel everyone, including the person being released and the family. Sometimes the family members are elderly but yet want to go get their child and are used to visiting them where they have been held, why not just let them drive to that unit and pick their child or husband or whomever up there? Think this over Legislators, see if you can do something about this.