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story.lead_photo.caption This May 2016 photo shows the Cole County Sheriff's Office and Jail in Jefferson City. Photo by Kris Wilson / News Tribune.

The Cole County Commission has approved two changes aimed at improving the Cole County Jail's operations.

The first deals with a new state law Cole County Sheriff John Wheeler said puts more of a burden on county jails regarding billing for the counties' costs to house prisoners.

Courts no longer process jail billing, Wheeler said. To make sure they are reclaiming this money, the commissioners approved promoting the current jail clerk/financial assistant to chief deputy clerk to handle jail billing and supervise the jail clerk office. Commissioners also approved hiring a new administrative assistant to take over some of the former jail clerk/financial assistant's responsibilities.

The total cost of making these staff changes is $26,745.

"The only people we collect from are those who have been found guilty or plead guilty to a crime," Wheeler said. "We don't go after anyone who has been found not guilty or had criminal charges dropped against them."

Over the last three months, Wheeler said, possible revenue from jail billing could be as much as $225,000.

"Even if we only get 10 percent of what is billed, it would be enough to offset the costs for these changes," he said.

The personnel changes will be put into the department's budget request for next year. For now, though, Wheeler said this would be a revenue-neutral move because of the large number of vacancies currently in his department. While the department is authorized to have 114 positions, right now there are 24 vacancies, 17 of which are in the jail, he added.

"How much we'll actually get back, I have no idea," he said. "The new law would allow us to go to the Department of Revenue, and they could help us get income tax money back from those found guilty of crimes."

Under the old system, Wheeler said, the circuit clerks would submit bills to the state, and the state would send out the bills.

While they are authorized under the new law to go back in their records to 2012, Wheeler said that would be too much for his staff to do, so they will start in 2017 and go forward from there.

Wheeler also said they are still working on how they will collect fees. They can accept payments, but how many payments is something they'll have to decide. They'll also have to determine how much time someone would have to make the payments. They might look to the Department of Revenue for help or might contract with a debt collector. A collector would get a percentage of what's collected, which is similar to the billing system currently used by the Cole County Emergency Medical Service.

"We can garnish their wages or go after their income tax if they refuse to pay their bills," Wheeler said. "We'll be able to track to make sure we're getting results."

The County Commission also approved Wheeler to move forward on bids for a body scanner.

"The initial cost for this will be $180,000, and we feel it will greatly reduce the amount of contraband coming into our facility," Wheeler said.

He said he has spoken with several sheriffs and visited other facilities that have body scanners, and he believes a scanner would make the jail safer for staff and prisoners.

"There's all kinds of places inmates are hiding contraband that's not made to be hiding contraband, and if it's found they are hiding something, they will be prosecuted," Wheeler said. "There's no way for us to locate some of these places. Last year, before a man was taken into custody, he concealed some methamphetamine in a bag. The bag broke, and when he got to us, we knew there was a problem. We took him to the ER, but he passed away in the hospital. There was no way for us to see that coming because there was no way for us to know that he had it concealed."

Wheeler said the body scanner is intended to be used only on inmates; however, they could scan employees or visitors if they felt there was a reason.

"An added bonus we'll get with this is a portable explosive and narcotics detector that we can run mail through, and we could bring it to the courthouse if we found something we needed to check," he said.

Wheeler did not indicate how soon the body scanner could be in place.

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