The Department of Corrections deserves some blame for the recent spate of escapes involving state prisoners housed at county jails. For instance, when choosing which prisoners were eligible to send to the counties, the state was classifying them according to behavior behind bars, not according to crimes they had committed.
That led to murderers and other violent criminals being sent places where security wasn't tight and facilities could be compromised.
But it's time state lawmakers realized that they deserve a large portion of the blame, as well. The state has to send prisoners to county jails because lawmakers have seriously underfunded state prisons. In a state that ranks among the nation's fastest growing, the Legislature has refused to keep pace with the need for prison beds. This is true despite years of impressive budget surpluses.
The idea of sending prisoners to county jails started in 1988. At that time, six inmates were farmed out. Today, 1,533 state prisoners are housed in 21 county jails. That means they are out of the direct control of state officials, who nonetheless bear full responsibility in the event of an escape.
And the escapes have come. Most recently, on Sept. 23, two convicted murderers were able to leave the Daggett County Jail. Then on Sunday, a man convicted of rape and kidnapping escaped the Beaver County Jail and was gone for about seven hours.
Unfortunately, simply backing out of the county jail program isn't an option. Like so many government programs, this has become an industry unto itself. Many counties have borrowed money to expand and modernize their jails in order to house the inmates. They count on the prisoners, and the money the state pays for housing them, to pay off those loans. In some counties, the local jail has now become a large employer. Pulling state prisoners would hurt their struggling economies.
By some estimates, it would cost the state $150 million to build the facilities it would need in order to bring all prisoners under its control again. That is a cost that would have been more manageable if lawmakers had decided years ago to keep pace.
Certainly, lawmakers have many needs to consider each year. But when some of them get up at committee meetings and lambaste the Department of Corrections for recent escapes from county jails, they would do better to lecture into a mirror.