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Posse Comitatus

A newsletter about sheriffs and the political power of law enforcement

State Spotlight: Missouri Sheriffs

Dollars and Sense
Missouri sheriffs have made a bold claim that the state owes them at least $30 million for housing people sentenced to state prison. They are so hell-bent on getting their cash that they formed a new club, called Missouri Sheriffs United. (The group is also going to oppose bail reform laws for fear of the dreaded “catch and release.”) The leader, Lewis County Sheriff David Parrish, also the Missouri Sheriffs Association president, said that the laws in Missouri were too “offender-centered.
Their ask is a bit extraordinary, so I thought it was worth breaking down.
In December of 2020, the state auditor released a report saying that the state owed $41 million to county sheriffs as part of the County Reimbursement Program, which pays county sheriffs to house people serving state sentences in their local jail. During the summer, the state released money in an attempt to make up for the backlog, but the auditor and the sheriffs say a substantial amount is still owed.
Basically, the way it worked was that county sheriffs would house and transport people serving state sentences, reimbursing at $22.38 per person per day. (According to the sheriffs, Missouri law makes it a misdemeanor for sheriffs to say no to the state.) The sheriffs argue the rate hasn’t changed since 1998, and the amount isn’t close to the real cost, which they put at $41. (I have some questions when it comes to the calculation of these “real costs” – agencies reimburse sheriffs at rates ranging from $20 to almost $100 per person per day. Given that range, I am not sure what “real cost” even means in this context.)
Sheriffs applied for reimbursement, and they were paid on a first-come-first served basis. This means that some sheriffs didn’t get paid if they sent in their reimbursements later than others. Overall, the sheriff’s argument is that the system penalizes rural sheriffs because they can ill-afford the costs. In some counties, the sheriff’s office is 50% of the county budget.
Back in the ye old days, sheriffing was a fee-for-service model. Rather than collect a salary, sheriffs were paid for executing people, holding people in jail, transporting people to jail, serving writs, and what can only be described as bounty hunting – catching people accused of crimes, especially those in more rural regions or who were traveling on trains. (Train thievery was particularly common during the 1800s and freaked out corporate interests.) Today, this has translated into some sheriffs charging people for their own incarceration. Missouri law, in place since 1909, says that people booked into jail “shall bear the expense of carrying him or her to said jail, and also his or her support while in jail, before he or she shall be discharged.” (The Missouri Supreme Court just held that these per diem costs cannot be billed as “court costs,” for which people can be re-incarcerated if they don’t pay.)
So, the idea of fee-for-service has been a part of the sheriff’s gig for a long time. One early 20th century historian writes that the role of sheriff was “a profitable but worthless sinecure…[which has] lived only because it is a rich prize for a powerful party system. Its simple and perfunctory duties require no knowledge or skill, but its emoluments are princely.”
In many states, local jails house people serving state prison terms. Often, this is a financial decision done in part to shift people out of state prisons, relieve overcrowded on the state level, and prevent state expenditures on new prison construction. County sheriffs are paid for per diem fees for holding these people. In some cases, the financial incentives are even more extreme.
In California, for example, the state used a program called “realignment,” which shifted some people serving state sentences back to counties to serve their sentences. The state of California actually gave money to counties that they could and did use to build bigger jails, especially in more rural areas. (I was around and reporting in California when realignment was happening, so I remember that one of the issues at the time was that the state said it didn’t want counties to build jails with this money – they wanted more creativity in split sentencing etc. – but jails are what people got.) The good people at Vera did a nice piece on King County, which is the home to three state prisons. Being a prison county, so to speak, means that a lot of the prosecutions are related to prisons – including visitors, correctional officers, and people serving time who are accused of crimes. King County has a special docket for these cases that the state funds. This means the state pays for the prosecution and the jailing of people as they await their trial.
The problem is that county jails are ill-equipped to hold people for the long term and vary widely in terms of conditions, programming, and what small comforts available. In Tulare County, California, for example, one retired county official bragged about how terrible the local jail was: “And let me tell you, when those people come to a county jail, they don't want to come back. We don't have exercise rooms, we don't have weight rooms, we don't have TVs. They have that little cell in there they go in, and that's it.” (NB: California prisons banned “weight rooms” in 1998, and I don’t know what exercise room this person is talking about.) There’s also something to be said here about the “proactive policing” in rural areas, which largely benefit agri-business, e.g. “customers.”
This shouldn’t be taken as an argument to keeping people in prison or for building state prisons. Instead, decarceration should be seen as an all-in project. Shifting people around from local to state facilities doesn’t alleviate the root of the problem: too many people who are incarcerated. It is, generally speaking, easier for local sheriffs to build new jails because sheriffs have more political power within the communities and are better able to justify the costs of construction by arguing that the jail will make money through housing people for federal, state and even other local governments. Additionally, counties can take advantage of public bond issuances to finance new jail construction even when the citizens don’t want to pay more taxes.
Now, with all of this money floating around, let’s return to President Biden’s promise not to renew private prison contracts. Most private prisons are used to hold people for ICE; some are also used in the same way as local jails. My personal comment on private prisons is that, in my limited experience, they are kind of a mess. The staff seemed untrained and inexperienced. There was a lot less organization, and no one seemed to know what was going on. The upside was I didn’t have to change my outfit 5 times because no one knew the dress code. Of course, I don’t know if “better run” prisons are better. An arbitrary rule is still arbitrary.
That said, the response to Biden’s announcement was pretty predictable (for me), with a bunch of smart people jumping out of the bushes to say that private prisons are a very, very small piece of the mass incarceration pie. That’s true. According to the Sentencing Project, private prisons hold 8.2% of the total number of people incarcerated.
Now, I will pop out of a trashcan to offer my own 2 cents. I think that what smells offensive about private prisons is the idea of profiteering off of incarcerated people. For good reason. But, at the end of the day, sheriffs are the ones who’ve been profiteering the most, for the longest amount of time. These poor Missouri sheriffs, for example, are still making money despite the state’s failure to pay. In Marion County, the sheriff says the jail MADE $900,000 by housing people for neighboring counties as well as the state and federal government.
The big difference is that when sheriffs are upset, they get to yell TAXPAYERS, which is always an inspiring rallying cry for conservatives.
What’s up with Missouri sheriffs? A few odds and ends.
In December, Arch City Defenders filed a lawsuit against the St. Francois County jail for inhumane conditions and inadequate medical care. The details of the complaint are horrifying, including people sleeping on the floor and standing up for lack of space. Deputies also arranged “Friday Night Fights” between people held in the jail. The jail was well-known for its terrible conditions, so bad that the U.S. Marshal Service cancelled its contract with St. Francois County. Never-not-sheriffing pal Maurice Chammah wrote about the horrors of this jail in July of 2020, and raises the important issue of the families and local lawyer who fought for justice and got their concerns heard by the media and the county government. But, not much has changed. Sheriff Dan Bullock, who won re-election this year (he has been sheriff since 1992!), has also claimed that the state owes him around $250-300K for holding people serving state sentences. The jail is supposed to hold around 188 people although the complaint alleges that more than 200 people are regularly there – and sometimes 300 per the sheriff himself. (As an aside, Bullock’s re-election was strange because a strong competitor who promised to reform the jail sadly died before the election. And Sheriff Bullock’s brother is the police chief.)
A Missouri sheriff refused to serve a resident with a ticket from Canada for failure to quarantine. He wrote, “The law enforcement powers held by a Sheriff supersede those of any agent, officer, elected official or employee from any level of government when in the jurisdiction of their County.”
This year, the legislature is seeking to pass a SAPA bill (Second Amendment Protection Act), which would subject sheriffs’ offices to civil liability if they enforce federal gun laws. Sheriffs, unsurprisingly, don't like it and say it will hamper their ability to form task forces with federal agencies. SAPAs essentially make it illegal to enforce gun laws. The Republican legislators are none too happy and blame sheriffs for being obstructionist. As an aside – SAPAs are based on a Confederate theory called “nullification,” which argues that states can “nullify” or ignore federal laws they don’t like. This was used post-Brown v. Board to argue against desegregation. It’s always been struck down.
An ex-Missouri sheriff’s deputy, now in the state house, put forth a bill last year that would require every adult to be armed.

Other News

The Washington Post published a story about Michigan residents flouting health orders to eat in restaurants (and the restaurants that stay open despite receiving violations and orders to close). While the story sets this up as “the other rebellion,” it’s actually mostly the same people. Back in the spring, Michigan militia groups coalesced around an Owasso barber who refused to close ship. Sheriff Dar Leaf of Barry County, Michigan, was one of the main supporters. And, current members of Michigan militia groups have coordinated efforts to defy Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s health orders. It’s not a coincidence that those visiting these (mostly rural-ish) restaurants are white while the communities suffering the most from the pandemic are not.
The Sacramento County jail in California has allowed COVID-19 to run rampant. Public Defenders are asking for vulnerable people to be vaccinated. The jail has been the subject of an ongoing lawsuit due to the poor conditions there. Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones has been spending his time at “re-open” California conferences and complaining that COVID-19 isn’t as bad as people say. Maybe he should look in his own house.
Pew released a report on the costs of local jails last week and found that 1 in 17 county dollars are spent to keep people locked up in local jails. The report also points out that the costs of jails do not correlate with crime rates. In some states, over half of all correctional budgets are spent on local jails. All this money being pouted into jails has not made them safer.
Jessica Pishko @jesspish 
Hate it? Love it? Email me at jesspish at
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