Article published April 5, 2001
County jail coping well on limited budget
Survey consultant impressed with facility despite staffing shortage, concerns with overcrowdingBy BAKER MAULTSBY
You might not think of it as a bargain.
But compared with many places across the country, keeping people in jail is cheap in Spartanburg County.
According to a national survey of jail budgets, the Spartanburg County jail
spends less each day per prisoner than numerous counties around the nation.
"The 2000 Corrections Yearbook: Jails," released by the Criminal
Justice Institute, reports that in fiscal year 1999, Spartanburg County spent on
average $31.78 a day per prisoner. Of jails surveyed in Spartanburg County's
size range, the Onondago, N.Y., system reported the highest costs -- $135 daily
for each prisoner. In this region, it costs on average $41.89 in Greenville
County and $72.61 in Mecklenburg County, N.C., to house a prisoner for a day.
These figures represent an apparent savings to Spartanburg County taxpayers.
They, however, may not tell the whole story, according to Dave Voorhis, a
Colorado-based consultant with the Institute for Law and Policy Planning.
Voorhis said the Corrections Yearbook "is as good as it gets" but
added that different jails report their budgets in different ways. Some jails,
for instance, include utilities and transportation to courts in their budget
calculations while others do not. Spartanburg County jail director Larry Powers
pointed out that Spartanburg Regional Medical Center absorbs the cost of medical
care to pre-trial inmates. Those costs may be passed on to the taxpayer in some
cases but don't show up in the jail budget. The more important question is what
the budget figures say about the jail's efficiency and service. Voorhis, who
spent months studying the Spartanburg County jail, had mostly positive things to
say about the facility's operation but added that it is facing overcrowding -- a
situation that could distort per inmate budget figures. Staffing comprises about
85 percent of the budget at most jails, according to Voorhis. There, however, is
a shortage of officers working at the Spartanburg County jail, assistant county
administrator Glenn Breed said, but added that the county hopes to fill as many
as 15 positions. Staff shortages coupled with overcrowding mean "the rate
per prisoner goes down when a facility is crowded," Voorhis said. Voorhis
said taxpayers are glad about limited jail costs, but "by the same token,
you'd probably spend more if you have the right amount of staff." While
"overcrowding is dangerous," Voorhis said it's a problem Powers has no
authority to solve. Reducing the prison population, he said, "must be
accomplished by law enforcement, prosecutor and the courts." Making that
happen will require a level of coordination and effort that can't be revealed in
a comparison of Spartanburg's jail budget to that of other systems. That reality
is not lost on local public officials. They have made it a priority to further
streamline the justice system and reduce the backlog of defendants, including
many prisoners, awaiting a day in court. Meanwhile, those who run the jail are
making the best of things, according to Voorhis. "I can tell you that I was
very impressed by Larry Powers and his staff," he said. "I have been
in over 1,000 jails and report that Spartanburg is doing well."