Chief Executive Goes to Washington

The Allegheny County Chief Executive participated in a meeting yesterday with other county level officials from around the country as they met with the President and other high ranking Federal officials on the issues pertaining to county services. Since "Federal policy, regulatory and budgetary decisions can have tremendous impacts on county governments" the meeting "was a great opportunity to share our thoughts and positions on a number of critical issues" according to the Executive’s press release.

Infrastructure and air traffic were topics, as was the jail. The Executive raised the Federal regulation that suspends Medicaid benefits after the end of the first month of incarceration, which cost the County $11.3 million in 2010 (the County contracts this service out to Allegheny Correctional Health Services according to the 2010 budget) and the Jail’s budget for 2011 is $55.6 million.

Allegheny County’s jail is one of 69 county jails in Pennsylvania. Some operating statistics from the PA Department of Corrections: in 2009, Allegheny County’s jail "usage" (average in house daily population/bed capacity) was 87%; the statewide average for all county prisons was 83%; its average cost of housing an inmate was $57.04, roughly the middle of the pack for the county prisons in the state; Allegheny was also lower than the statewide average of full-time security per 100 prisoners (based on the average daily population) at 17 to 21. Data from the County Jail’s annual reports shows that the average number of inmates maintained grew 8% from 2005 to 2008.

Short of a major change in Federal policy on Medicaid coverage for incarcerated people, could the County find savings elsewhere at the jail to offset the expense? The sunset review stated "the County contracts halfway house programs, food services, and laundry services. The County could contract additional functions to make the jail a private facility". Note that the review did not specify what the additional functions were. And it is not clear if by the last part of the statement the review the intention was a full privatization of the jail. That idea would likely be quickly dismissed by the public sector unions and their backers.