Finally, Jackson County has a plan for moving more guards onto the floors of its much-maligned jail.
But what took so long?
This week, Jackson County legislators received a short-term plan from county administrators for freeing up more guards. The needed and overdue moves come months after a jail consultant first cautioned that the jail was a dangerous mess.
The outline of a plan came just days after the filing of a class-action lawsuit that demanded a judge address the jail’s dirty and dangerous conditions. Top county officials have been anticipating such a suit for months.
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It’s no secret why staffing at the jail is off by 50 guards of the 278 authorized. The pay is lousy. In fact, legislators were told that the $12.60 starting wage is by far the lowest around. Johnson County starts its corrections officers at $17.50 an hour, Wyandotte County at $18 an hour. A guard at Truman Medical Center works for just shy of $20 an hour. That comes to $41,080 a year, nearly $15,000 a year more than that Jackson County guard.
No wonder turnover hovers above 40 percent and that Jackson County guards are quick to seek jobs elsewhere once they’ve been trained.
The new policy changes fall into the category of common-sense proposals that could have been implemented long ago. One calls for creating a pool of officers who will handle the transportation of inmates instead of pulling guards off floors to handle that work.
Another calls for using more video cameras so that inmates can make court appearances from jail instead of in person. That reduces the number of prisoners who need to be transported. Other proposals call for limiting visitation hours, which would free up guard hours, and increasing the number of inmates on house arrest.
The last recommendation will address the jail’s other urgent problem: chronic overcrowding. Officials said hundreds more inmates could be housed at home and confined via ankle bracelets.
After the meeting, Legislature chairman Scott Burnett wondered why the proposals weren’t made sooner. “No rocket science here,” he said, before adding that the jail is a more complex mechanism than many realize.
It’s clear that a persistent but below-the-radar push from Burnett, Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker and others is finally resulting in long-overdue action from Jackson County Executive Frank White and his team.
It’s also increasingly clear that several legislators, Crystal Williams and Dan Tarwater to name two, have run out of patience with jail administrators. On KCUR Monday, both called for new leadership and insisted that jail administration is top-heavy.
“That’s the only way we’re going to see a change,” Tarwater said.
Restructuring could free up money for still more guards. Jackson County is starting to move, but it took far too long.