Jefferson County could soon stop accepting prisoners from the Beaumont and Port Arthur police departments.
The Commissioner’s Court is expected to consider terminating its agreements with the cities next week.
In the agenda for the meeting called for 10:30 a.m. Tuesday at the county courthouse, two items have been added that would give Jefferson County Judge Jeff Branick permission to alert cities notices of the termination.
The county has been in a back-and-forth with both of Jefferson County’s largest cities for around a decade regarding the costs and fees associated with housing prisoners at its facility, leading to a lawsuit that still hasn’t been heard in court.
Without any end to the issue in sight, Branick said it is time to take action for the sake of the county’s budget.
“I’m more than willing to let a court decide this situation and will accept it if they think we are in the wrong, but it’s time we move on,” Branick said.
According to Branick, the fight seems to fall to how the county and both cities interpret the law and their liability for paying for the prisoners housed in the detention center.
By the county auditor’s calculations, Jefferson County has been charging Beaumont about 50% of its actual costs per prisoner since its agreement was signed more than 20 years ago. But Beaumont has decided to pay around 35% of the actual cost per inmate, Branick said.
“We’ve been working on that disparity for about 10 years without a solution, so now we have to end our relationship,” Branick said.
The county’s move to terminate the agreements is a timely one, since Jefferson County has seen its expenses skyrocket at the detention center since the start of COVID-19.
Sheriff Zena Stephens said there is a lenghty list of pandemic-related factors has increased costs — one of the most visible the sheer number of people housed in the detention center.
That has meant adding more corrections officers per shift, paying overtime and an overall surge in personnel costs to keep the center well-managed and secure.
Stephens said her responsibilities fall outside of the financial and legal decisions being made by the county, but she said it felt like an appropriate time to start a conversation on what it really takes to responsibly house incarcerated people.
“It’s something both elected officials and taxpayers probably need more information about,” Stephens said. “Whether we are in the middle of a pandemic or not, there has to be a true understanding of the cost of operating our facilities.”
Written by Jacob Dick